May 23, 2022 - News

Reform to harsh school zone law brings hope to heartsick families

Illustration of a school zone sign with opening jail doors over it.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Hundreds of defendants imprisoned under Tennessee's harsh drug-free school zone law are now eligible for a second chance at justice.

  • A new reform signed into law last month allows them to ask for resentencing. Cases are already working through the court system.

Why it matters: Tennessee's original drug-free school zone law allowed prosecutors to increase mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes within 1,000 feet of schools or parks.

  • While the law was designed to protect children, in practice it resulted in especially long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes where children were not in danger.
  • In many cases, crimes took place in homes or when school was not in session.

Between the lines: The law disproportionately affected people living in dense neighborhoods near schools, largely low-income defendants and people of color.

Flashback: Lawmakers acknowledged the problem, passing a reform in 2020 to shrink the radius around schools to 500 feet and limiting the law to crimes in which children were actually in jeopardy.

  • But it didn't apply retroactively, leaving some 400 defendants in prison under an obsolete version of the law.
  • Gov. Bill Lee instituted an expedited clemency review for those defendants, but there was no legal remedy in court.

State of play: The new law, passed with broad bipartisan support, is allowing defendants, prosecutors and judges to revive those cases.

  • Judges have started resentencing some cases, which could lead to the release of nonviolent offenders who have been in prison years longer than if their cases were heard today.

Zoom out: Rep. Michael Curcio (R-Dickson), who sponsored the legislation, fought for years for a fix.

  • "There were times where we thought this issue was dead," Curcio, who is leaving the General Assembly this year, tells Axios. "It is very, very exciting to see the progress."

The bottom line: "This has been years in the making, and it's actually here now," attorney Daniel Horwitz tells Axios.

  • "This is a really, really important, meaningful reform that is going to help a lot of people and already is helping a lot of people."
Illustration of a gavel hitting the floor and generating ripples.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

For many, the reform has life-changing implications.

  • Jose Araguz was 13 years old when his father was arrested because police watched him drive through a school zone en route to a nighttime drug deal.
  • Nazario Araguz was sentenced to the mandatory minimum of 15 years under the terms of the school zone drug law, missing holidays, birthdays and ball games.

The latest: Defense attorney Ben Raybin and the Nashville DA's office agreed Araguz's case should be reconsidered. Last week, a judge granted a motion to resentence Araguz under the new version of the law.

  • After finding that Araguz would not have received the same lengthy sentence under current law, the judge issued a new sentence that now makes him eligible for parole and sentencing credits.

What we're watching: Raybin, who lobbied for school-zone reforms, believes Araguz could be released soon, based on his time served and credits.

  • The prospect of seeing his father outside of prison walls brought Jose, now 25, to tears.

What he's saying: "My dad, he's not a bad person," Jose tells Axios. "He's paid the price for the crime he committed."

  • "My dad has a lot of people out here who are waiting on him and hoping to see him someday. Before this law, there was nothing we could do."

Raybin says local cases are "moving forward very, very quickly." He credits DA Glenn Funk for embracing the issue and working alongside the defense.

  • "It's a very unusual circumstance," the defense attorney says of the broad agreement across the criminal justice system. "It is evidence of how completely unfair and unjust the law was to start with."

Zoom in: When Funk took office in 2014, he stopped using the school-zone law to amplify sentences in cases where children weren't endangered. He asked his conviction review unit (CRU) to prepare to revisit old cases.

  • Immediately after the bill took effect, CRU director Sunny Eaton started reaching out to the defense bar and filing requests for new sentences for defendants without representation.

What they're saying: "We have been compiling these for a long time just waiting for a legal mechanism to get into this," Eaton tells Axios.

  • "This is something we're all on the same page about."

The big picture: Matthew Charles, a policy associate for the advocacy group FAMM, tells Axios he hopes the rest of the state follows Nashville's example.

  • "I just want to see uniformity throughout the different counties as opposed to certain counties granting it and certain counties denying it," Charles says.

What's next: The Administrative Office of the Courts is sending information about the new law to state judges and will discuss the measure at an upcoming judicial conference, a spokesperson tells Axios.

Calvin Bryant with his daughter, Treasure, in 2019.
Calvin Bryant with his daughter, Treasure, in 2019. Photo: Larry McCormack /The Tennessean/USA Today Network

Calvin Bryant received a 17-year sentence under the drug-free school zone law after a low-level drug offense at his Edgehill home in 2008.

Why it matters: Bryant has been able to care for his mother and mentor football players at his old high school. And he has two children who would not exist if he had served his original, outdated sentence: daughter Treasure and son Calvin Bryant III.

The bottom line: Bryant now wants others serving similar sentences to get their own new beginnings.

  • "That's a blessing," Bryant tells Axios. "It's a second chance at life."
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