A bi-partisan majority of Tennessee residents support reforming the state's drug-free school zone law — one that's been criticized as being out of line with the legislation's intent.
"Although drug-free school zones may sound good on the surface, they seem to create some troubling inequities," said Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris. "As a consequence, today many states are in the process of making modifications to their drug-free school zone laws. It's time for Tennessee lawmakers to join them, and as this poll shows, Tennesseans are ready for change."
icitizen, in collaboration with Sen. Harris, conducted the poll. The organization surveyed 531 registered Tennessee voters and found that more than eight in 10 Tennesseans support a reform to The Tennessee Drug-Free School Zone Act, which was enacted in 1995. The law enhances penalties for drug crimes that occur within 1,000 feet of a school, daycare, library, recreational center, or park.
A defendant in a school zone currently faces 15 years in prison for a first-time, nonviolent offense before the possibility of being released. If the offense took place outside of a school zone, the same defendant would be eligible for release after 29 months. The law applies even when the offense occurs outside of school hours, when school is closed during summer, and regardless if children are present.
About 84 percent of those polled support major or minor reforms to the law. Tennessee residents — 62 percent — say policy that clarifies the law's intent should enhance penalties when children are present. Support for reform garnered interest from both parties, with 90 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans supporting a reform to the law.
“It’s refreshing to see D’s and R’s come together in the name of criminal justice reform," Sen. Harris said. "I believe that they recognize, like I do, that this law disproportionately affects urban areas such as Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. In these urban areas, due to their density and the sheer number of schools, most places are a drug-free school zone.”
Nashville's District Attorney Glenn Funk has previously said in op-eds published in the Commercial Appeal
and Chattanooga Times Free Press
that the law is applied inconsistently with the legislation's intent.
"[The intent] was to keep drugs away from schoolchildren," Funk wrote. "This enhancement puts street level drug-free school zone act violations on par with second degree murder. The idea that this law keeps school kids safe is a myth, all it accomplishes is the destruction of communities.”