'What was it for?' Drug-free school zone violators remain in jail despite law change

School zone
Posted at 6:28 PM, Jul 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-14 09:09:24-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Nearly 500 Tennesseans who sold drugs in school zones are serving a sentence that is four times longer than what the crime will get you today.

Before the law changed in 2020, selling drugs in a school zone would have led to an enhanced sentence.

"The drug-free school zone, basically what it is is it enhances what would be a Class B felony to a Class A felony," explained Calvin Bryant. "In my situation, instead of having 8-12 years, I was sentenced to over 15 years at 100%."

Bryant was convicted in 2009 for selling drugs to another adult near his Edgehill home in a school zone.

"I had never seen anyone get hit with a drug-free school zone. When I was the first one to get hit with it it was kinda shocking," Bryant said.

After serving 10 and a half years, a deal in 2018 made Bryant a free man. After his release, he also became an advocate for criminal justice reform.

Last year, Gov. Bill Lee approved changes to drug-free school zone laws. The zones were cut down from 1,000 feet to 500 feet around schools, churches, parks and libraries, and judges are no longer required to issue a mandatory minimum sentence.

A look at the zones with the previous law of 1,000 feet:

A look at the zones with the new law of 500 feet:

"I thank the lawmakers for changing the law," Bryant said.

Bryant is now working with Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) to make the law retroactive.

"[An] important part is getting the people who's been affected by the injustice of this law out of jail... It's hard to use somebody's injustice for somebody's justice, that hasn't even committed the crime. I mean the law was changed because people was mistreated and those same individuals are still being mistreated to this day. What if nobody commits the crime? What was it for?" Bryant said.

The Chair of Tennessee's Criminal Justice Committee would like to take another look at the law during the next session.

"I think once folks realize, especially in the judicial community and law enforcement community that we are talking about a very finite group of individuals, that can absolutely be vetted on a case-by-case basis, then I think from there you have a pretty good place to start from," said Representative Michael Curcio.

Republican Rep. Michael Curcio said there are currently 54 Tennesseans who had no previous criminal record serving out lengthy sentences for selling drugs in a school zone.

"Reforming the law was really a number one priority, Now that we've done that and lawmakers are comfortable with that and the citizens of Tennessee are comfortable, I think it's that natural follow-up conversation," Rep. Curcio said.

On Wednesday, FAMM is hosting a virtual panel, “The People Justice Reform Left Behind: Why Tennessee Should Fix Old School-Zone Sentences” from 6-7 p.m. Watch the panel here.