Law & the Courts

A Man Serving a Mandatory-Minimum Sentence for a Nonviolent Drug Offense Is Freed

(File photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
But he should never have been sentenced so harshly.

A Tennessee man has been freed after serving eleven years of a 17-year sentence for a first-time drug offense — but he should have never been sentenced to so many years in prison in the first place.

Calvin Bryant was sentenced to 17 years — 15 of them mandatory — because of Tennessee’s drug-free-school laws, according to an article in Reason. He was arrested back in 2008 for selling ecstasy and other pills out of his apartment in Nashville to a confidential informant. This crime normally would have resulted in a sentence of at least two and a half years, but because Bryant happened to live within 1,000 feet of an elementary school, his sentence was automatically ramped up — placing his crime in the same class as second-degree murder or rape.

Thankfully, Davidson County district attorney Glenn Funk was able to convince the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office to let Bryant plead guilty to a reduced charge and be released on time served. This is definitely a good thing, but I don’t think that any reasonable person could argue that the punishment that was originally doled out was anything but completely unwarranted given his crimes.

As Funk explained to Reason, “drug-free zones” actually make up a huge amount of Tennessee geographically:

In places like Nashville, almost the entire city is a drug-free zone. 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.

Thankfully, the district attorney’s office under Funk (who was elected in 2014) has a policy of not charging people with this enhancement unless minors were actually involved. This is a good thing. It’s obviously far worse to sell drugs to children than it is to sell drugs to consenting adults (which is presumably what these laws were intending to punish) but the idea of drug-free “zones” is, in general, ridiculous. You shouldn’t be punished because of laws that are aimed at stopping people from hurting children if you are not actually hurting any children. Essentially, punishing Bryant in this way amounted to punishing him for a crime he didn’t even really commit.

As a libertarian, I believe that all drugs should be legal for adults. After all, in a truly free country, we would all have the freedom to decide what we do and do not choose to put into our own bodies. What’s more, making drugs legal would eliminate a lot of the violence that communities now experience due to people buying and selling them in the black market. At the very least, however, draconian laws such as the ones that unfairly took so much of Bryant’s life away should be discarded nationwide — and stay discarded. If you’re not selling drugs to children, you should never have to worry about being punished as if you were selling drugs to children. It’s true: Selling ecstasy a few blocks away from some kids does nothing to harm them, because you actually cannot get high from being in the same neighborhood as a pill. It’s as simple as that.

Mandatory-minimum sentencing really has to go also. Every situation is different, and judges should be able to have the freedom to use their own discretion to treat each individual situation accordingly. There should never be an instance where a judge has no choice but to sentence someone to more time than that judge thinks is necessary because of these laws. We are talking about people’s lives here, after all. No one should have to be separated for more than a decade from his loved ones because of a single nonviolent mistake involving consenting adults only — and it’s far past time for our justice system to recognize that.

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