The War on Drugs was the catalyst for a number of new laws aimed at curbing the illegal sale and use of narcotics across the U.S. “Drug-free school zones” were born from this movement and adopted widely in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the goal of protecting innocent children from predatory drug dealers who might seek them out in public places.
But decades later, state lawmakers, including some in Tennessee, are finding that while those laws were created with good intentions, they are not being used to prosecute criminals preying on children. Rather, the statutes have levied long sentences on non-violent drug offenders.
Among them is Sara Moore, who is currently serving eight years at a Tennessee prison. She was arrested after selling two grams of meth inside her East Tennessee home to a police informant on four occasions.
Buel Moore remembers the day he found his 26-year-old daughter could face 41 years behind bars because she lived near a school.
“That was the first time we realized there was such a law and she fell under that," he said in Nashville this week at a forum for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "A 'drug-free school zone' — well, the way it’s worded, no one is against protecting kids, and I wouldn't have been either. But what I didn’t realize is had she [Sara] lived just a little farther outside the thousand-foot perimeter, which was an arbitrary number set when the law was first drafted, she would have fell under a whole different set of sentencing rules."
Moore’s parents say she suffered from some mental health issues and was a recovering addict. When she was in high school, she had been part of the Junior Navy ROTC program and dreamed of becoming a military officer. Now in her 20s, she had recently left a live-in rehab facility and with the support of her parents was back on her own. When she relapsed, she began selling methamphetamine to finance her own habit.
Because mandatory minimums are triggered in drug-free zone cases, judges have no discretion to take special factors into account — like addiction, mental health problems, age or even a history of abuse.
Moore says his daughter felt she had no choice but to accept the plea deal offered by the state.
Drug-free zones aren't just in proximity to a school. Tennessee’s law passed in 1995 covers a thousand-foot radius around daycares, libraries, recreation centers and parks. Buying, selling, or simply possessing drugs in these areas — even if just walking or driving by — leads to severe terms without the possibility of parole. These sentences can often be longer than those handed down for violent felonies, including rape and aggravated assault.
State Sen. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, says chances are most people who live in or drive through these areas wouldn’t even know it.
“That radius is so large that it swallows up entire communities,” Harris says. “[There’s] four urban counties in Tennessee: Knox, Hamilton, Davidson and Shelby. And in those counties, the vast majority of residents are always in a school zone. They eat, sleep, work and recreate in a school zone.”
Harris is from Memphis, where almost 40 percent of the city is a drug-free zone. Nashville isn’t far behind at 27 percent, according to an article by Reason, which crunched the numbers for Tennessee.
Fewer than 500 people currently behind bars in the state have been sentenced under the law — but not for selling drugs to children. They were selling out of their homes, had drugs in their car when they were pulled over or were set up in a drug-free zone by undercover police officers. Most wouldn't have known they were in a school zone at all.
Though the number is small, Harris points out that thousands of other non-violent offenders have been compelled to take unfavorable plea bargains because they fear the long, mandatory sentences. The Memphis Democrat hopes to work with Republicans on a reform bill. Already some, like Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, say they plan to support it, though they anticipate some push back from district attorneys.
“It’s going to be hard for the DAs and the prosecutors,” Roberts says. “This is a great tool in their toolbox. They like having that big hammer. And if we come back and tell them we’re going to give them a smaller hammer they’ll probably push back on it. But I think at this point the data is pretty clear that it’s time to revisit [the law].”
Other Republican-led states have already been changing their laws. In 2014, then-Governor Mike Pence signed a bill reducing the size of the drug zones in Indiana. Utah and North Dakota followed shortly after.
Legislation hasn’t moved in Tennessee, but advocates are quietly racking up commitments from legislators in hopes of shrinking drug-free zones here.