Calvin Bryant has had a busy year and a half. He’s launched a nonprofit, become a dad. He even testified at the Tennessee State Capitol. That’s because Bryant’s catching up from time lost during the decade he spent in prison on a first-time drug offense. And he hoped his story would sway legislators to reform the state’s strict drug-free school zones sentencing laws.
“It became real personal to the point that I felt like I owed that: to get in there with the legislators and really tell them how it really is, because there’s a lot of people, they can’t speak for themselves,” Bryant says. “So, just because I was released, I felt like I was still obligated to fight this law.”
In 2008, Bryant was a student at Tennessee State University. A former football star Hillsboro High School, he’d earned the nickname “Fridge” for his solid build. He was a hard worker who had never gotten into trouble with the law. Until the night a friend acting as an undercover police informant convinced Bryant to sell him a bag of ecstasy pills in his apartment at the Edgehill Homes.
Bryant was arrested and convicted the following year on felony drug charges.
If he’d made the sale even a block down the road, Bryant could have been sentenced to just three years in prison. But because it happened within 1,000 feet of a library, Bryant’s sentence got bumped up to 17 years, with no chance for parole.
The extra penalty was the result of Tennessee’s drug-free school zones law, which dates back to 1995. It adds mandatory minimum sentences for drug sales that take place near schools, daycare facilities, public libraries, recreation centers and parks. And the law also upgrades convictions to the next felony grade — so an offense that otherwise would have warranted between three and six years could result in an eight- to 12-year sentence. Larger drug sales even further increase the sentencing range.
All 50 states allow some form of tougher punishments for drug sales in certain areas, according to the Sentencing Project, which studies criminal justice policies. Tennessee’s drug-free school zones law is one of the harshest.
“There’s no reason to think the intentions weren’t great and noble and all designed to reduce illegal drug use and promote public safety,” says Kevin Ring, president of FAMM, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for sentencing and prison reform. But he says Tennessee’s drug-free school zones law, which was meant to deter people from selling drugs to or near children, has led to unintended consequences.
“It was being misused,” Ring says. “In some cases, prosecutors and the police were setting up buys within the school zone, bringing drugs into the school zones, just so that they could get a higher penalty for somebody.”
Other times, like in Bryant’s case, Ring says people didn’t even realize they were in a school zone.
“You have people who, they sold drugs in their apartment building to a confidential informant,” he says. “But, had they been in a different wing of the apartment building, they would’ve received a much shorter sentence.”
Reform for some, but not all
Last week, the Tennessee House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a new bill (HB 2517/SB 2734) that shrinks drug-free zones to 500 feet and allows judges more flexibility during sentencing.
Those who are convicted of selling drugs in a school zone will now be eligible for parole. And a judge can choose not to increase their sentence in certain cases, like if someone’s arrested during a traffic stop outside a school or if it’s late at night and no kids are around.
But advocates say the reforms won’t completely fix the problem. Since the bill isn’t retroactive, about 400 people who were sentenced under the old law will remain in prison.
“I think it’s totally unfair that people who committed the exact same offense serve vastly different amounts of time in prison, just based on the date they committed it,” says attorney Daniel Horwitz, who helped to secure Bryant’s early release from prison through a deal with Nashville’s district attorney.
Now, he hopes to free another client, Wayne Potee, who’s about four years into a 15-year sentence for selling small amounts of methamphetamine.
Horwitz says Potee was arrested while battling a drug dependency stemming from an injury. Because it happened in a drug-free zone, he can’t be released on parole or even access many of the prison’s rehabilitative programs, since spots are often reserved for those who are parole eligible and need to take classes to fulfill their own early release requirements.
“It’s just another example of a senselessly punitive sentence,” Horwitz says. “It’s tragedy, and it’s purposeless. It does very little to promote public safety, if anything at all. And the consequences are tremendous.”
Horwitz wants Gov. Bill Lee to commute his client’s sentence — along with those of the hundreds of others serving extra time based on old rules. Or for the state to at least grant them a parole hearing.
“I think under circumstances like this, when the state of Tennessee, as a whole, has pointed at one of its laws, said this needs reform and enacted a reform, it makes sense for the governor to go back, look through the folks who were previously subjected to this law that we have since updated and to correct their sentences,” Horwitz says.
FAMM has offered to recruit pro bono lawyers to help prepare clemency cases for prisoners left behind by the new legislation. And a spokesperson for the governor says he’ll review sentences on a case-by-case basis.
But Bryant isn’t giving up his campaign for reform just yet. He’s celebrating this step forward. But he hopes his friends who are still locked up on school zone charges will get the same fresh start he did.
“I feel like everybody deserves a second chance,” he says. “And just, how I got out and did the right thing, this just lets them know that it is possible for these guys to get out and change their lives and do the right thing.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.