The U.S. Justice Department is taking a new approach on drug crimes. The department is encouraging low level convicted drug dealers to request clemency . Clemency would allow up to 12,000 inmates to be released early . The federal system is making the move to save money on the costs it takes to house a prisoner. They also realize of the inequities of the harsh drug sentences based upon mandatory minimum sentences.

Contrast the Federal approach verses the approach in Tennessee . Tennessee is going in the opposite direction. Several years ago the Tennessee Legislature passed the Drug Free School Zone Act which increased the punishment of drug offenses within 1000 feet of a schools zone as well as other types of locations like daycare centers. So if ones possess .5 gram of cocaine with the intent to sell or deliver within a 1000 feet of a school zone a defendant is looking at 15-25 years in prison at 100 %. . You drive by a school on the interstate with some drugs and you are in the cross hairs. The practical effect is the drug free school zone is used as a hammer to force plea bargain agreements where a prison cell is the next stop.

Now don’t get me wrong. Drugs in schools are a bad thing and should not be tolerated. However , the law does not require a nexus between the school or any activity and the criminal conduct . You just drive by the school and your guilty of a drug free school zone charge. Every bill in Tennessee must have a fiscal note attached as to let everyone know how much this is going to cost.

The question is whether we should put low level drug dealers in prison or try some measure to rehabilitate them. Common sense tells me that the drug free school zone laws are not being used for what they were designed . The decision to prosecute these cases have given too much power to the District  Attorneys . Fill up the prisons or solve the problem. The federal system seems to be moving towards fixing the problem . Which way will Tennessee move ?


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