Opposition grows against Tennessee's drug-free school zones

Critics say Tennessee's drug-free school zone laws are unfair and that reforms are overdue.

Tennessee's drug laws are tough, especially for those caught up in the state's drug-free school zone laws. The laws impose enhanced penalties on those convicted of drug crimes that occur within 1,000 feet of certain facilities where children are likely to be present, such as a school or daycare. While the laws were meant to protect children from drugs, critics say they have led to grossly unfair sentences, particularly in urban areas where most places are considered drug-free school zones. According to WGNS Radio, support for reforming the state's drug-free school zone laws is growing, such as by addressing the disproportionate sentences handed down under the law.

A good idea gone bad

The Tennessee Drug-Free School Zone Act was enacted in 1995 and enjoyed wide support at the time. The act mandates enhanced sentences for those convicted of drug crimes that occur within 1,000 feet of a school, daycare, park, library or recreational center. The law was designed to prevent children from being exposed to drugs and from getting involved in the drug trade.

The law is notoriously strict and tough. For example, a person convicted of a first-time, non-violent drug offense in a drug-free school zone could face a prison sentence of 15 years. By way of comparison, the same offense outside of a drug-free school zone would have meant that same defendant would have been eligible for release after 29 months. Furthermore, the enhanced penalties are applied regardless of whether children are present, if school is out for the holidays, or if the school is closed.

Support for reform

As Local Memphis reports, while the drug-free school zone laws had significant support when they were first passed, that support has now all but disappeared. One recent poll, for example, found that 80 percent of Tennesseans support reforming the drug-free school zone laws. Many people, for example, say that the enhanced penalties should only be applied when children are actually present when an offense is committed.

Critics of the current laws complain that the enhanced penalties go against the original intention behind the law. They point out that sentencing non-violent drug offenders to such lengthy sentences when children were not even present during those offenses does little to actually address the problem of drugs in schools. Furthermore, the current laws disproportionately affect urban residents since the high densities of major cities means that people in those cities usually find themselves in a drug-free school zone whether they know it or not. Some state lawmakers have vowed to introduce reforms to the drug-free school zone laws when the legislature resumes its work in the coming months.

Criminal defense

As shown above, Tennessee has incredibly tough laws against drug crimes and even first-time, non-violent offenders could end up with lengthy prison sentences if convicted. Because of the serious nature of these charges, anybody who has been accused of a drug crime needs to contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. An experienced attorney can provide counsel to defendants and help those defendants understand how best to uphold their rights and freedoms.