ON JULY 9,2008, officers of the Columbia, Tennessee, police department arrested Michael Goodrum and charged him with possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute in a drug-free school zone.
Sounds bad, right? Surely the kind of monster who sells crack in a school yard should be put away for a long time. Lawmakers certainly think so: All 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws on the books that provide for harsh sentences for people who buy or sell drugs near schools. In Tennessee, it's considered such a serious crime under the state's Drug-Free School Zone Act of 1995 that Goodrum's charge was automatically upgraded to a Class A felony--the same category as murder.
But Michael Goodrum was not peddling dope to kids on a playground. He wasn't on school property, and school wasn't in session. In fact, he wasn't within sight of a school.
According to court testimony by the police who arrested him, the 40-year-old was sitting in a private residence at 10:30 p.m. when officers swept into the living room with a narcotics search warrant. Goodrum was ordered to the floor, and when an officer picked him up, the cop found a small bag of crack cocaine underneath him.
Goodrum says he was only visiting the house. He had never been convicted of a felony before.
Normally, he would have been facing a stiff eight years in prison for possession with intent to sell of 1.7 grams of crack cocaine. (That's about the same weight as two blueberries.) But the room he was in happened to fall within 572 feet of a park and 872 feet of a school--roughly two blocks away from either, but still well within the 1,000-foot drug-free radius created under Tennessee law.
After a four-year odyssey involving a hung jury and a retrial, Goodrum was convicted and sentenced to 15 years without the possibility of an early release. Had he been convicted of second-degree murder, he might have ended up serving less time in prison. That crime carries a minimum 15-year sentence but includes a possibility for release within 13.
Goodrum's case isn't unusual. Drug-free school zone laws are rarely if ever used to prosecute sales of drugs to minors. Such cases are largely a figment of our popular imagination--a lingering hangover from the drug war hysteria of the 1980s. Yet state legislatures have made the designated zones both larger and more numerous, to the point where they can blanket whole towns. In the process, they have turned minor drug offenses into lengthy prison sentences almost anywhere they occur.
In some cases, police have set up controlled drug buys inside school zones to secure harsher sentences. That gives prosecutors immense leverage to squeeze plea deals out of defendants with the threat of long mandatory minimum sentences.
In recent years, this approach has begun to trouble some state lawmakers, and even some prosecutors are growing uncomfortable with the enormous power--and in some cases, the obligation--they have been handed to lock away minor drug offenders.
Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk ran for office in 2014 on a platform that included not prosecuting school zone violations except in cases that actually involve children. He says almost every single drug case referred to his office falls within a drug-free zone.
He's right. Data obtained from the Tennessee government show there are 8,544 separate drug-free school zones covering roughly 5.5 percent of the state's total land area. Within cities, however, the figures are much higher. More than 27 percent in Nashville and more than 38 percent in Memphis are covered by such zones. They apply day and night, whether or not children are present, and it's often impossible to know you're in one.
"In places like Nashville, almost the entire city is a drug-free zone," Funk says. "Every church has day care, and they are a part of drug-free zones. Also, public parks and seven or eight other places are included in this classification. And almost everybody who has driven a car has driven through a school zone. What we had essentially done, unwittingly, was increased drug penalties to equal murder penalties without having any real basis for protecting kids while they're in school."
THE RISE OF THE DRUG-FREE ZONE
GOODRUM IS ONE of 436 inmates currently serving time in Tennessee state prisons for possessing or selling drugs in a drug-free zone. The oldest of those inmates, Harry Watts, was 74 years old at the time of his sentencing. It was his first felony conviction. The youngest, Sammy Russell, was 16 when he received eight years in an adult prison for having half a gram of cocaine, or less than a packet of sugar, on him. It was his first felony conviction as well.
For a drug offender charged with possession of under half a gram of cocaine with intent to distribute, a few hundred feet can mean the difference between probation or release within three years, on one hand, vs. eight years of hard time behind bars without any hope of parole, on the other.
Tennessee's drug-free school zone laws are among the harshest in the country, but the state is far from an outlier. Statutes that increase sentences for drug crimes that occur near schools or other places where children congregate--parks, rec centers, libraries, day cares--exist in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Congress created the first drug-free zone law in 1970 as part of the federal Comprehensive Drug Abuse, Prevention and Control Act. At the time, supporters argued that the laws deterred drug sales to children and reduced other criminal activity associated with drugs in areas around schools.
"Those who have a drug habit find it necessary to steal, to commit crimes, in order to feed their habit," President Richard Nixon said in a signing statement. "We found also, and all Americans are aware of this, that drugs are alarmingly on the increase in use among our young people. They are destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people all over America, not just of college age or young people in their 20s. but the great tragedy: The uses start even in junior high school, or even in the late grades."
The law was amended in 1986, near the height of the '80s-era drug panic, to double the maximum sentence for drug distribution or manufacturing within 1,000 feet of a school, college, or playground, and to add areas within 100 feet of swimming pools, video arcades, or youth centers.
States followed suit. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, drug-free school zones became ubiquitous...