Nashville DA moves quickly to remove harsh, outdated Drug Free School Zone sentences

Arturo Cardenas looks at attorney Kate Boston Melby as he has his sentence reduced on Friday.

  • A new Tennessee law lets defendants ask for resentencing for Drug Free School Zone violation charges after the legislature in 2020 rewrote the law to remove mandatory sentencing minimums.
  • To date, 21 individuals in Nashville serving Drug Free School Zone enhanced sentences have been resentenced to remove those enhancements with 6 more motions still pending.  That is a savings of 198 prison years for those who had been incarcerated and a conservative estimate of 5.7 million saved taxpayer dollars.

The resentencing is life-changing for people like 49-year-old Arturo Cardenas.   He was resentenced and released from prison almost immediately. “As soon as the judgment hits the Tennessee Department of Correction, he should be released,” Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith said.  He was convicted in 2009 on multiple charges including an enhancement under the state’s Drug Free School Zone legislation. 

Under mandatory minimums at the time, drug crime sentences were enhanced significantly when the crime occurred within a school zone — at that time described as up to 1,000 feet from a school, library, park, day care center or recreational center. In an urban area, zones that wide can blanket whole neighborhoods.   Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk decried the enhanced sentencing, saying it was unfair and discriminatory, since most urban areas fall within a school zone and arrests occur very rarely (if ever) when children are present.

The new law reduces the school zone radius to 500 feet and allows defendants to be eligible for parole unless the judge finds the offense put children at risk.

“Everyone agrees the intent of this was because we don’t want people to sell drugs to kids,” Sunny Eaton, director of the Nashville District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit, told The Tennessean. “But the application of law was unfair at its heart.”

“We’re not eliminating convictions. This is not about innocence or going back in time,” she said. “This is about getting people out of prison who should have been already released — or at least giving them hope for parole.”

In May, a Nashville woman became the first person in Tennessee to receive a reduced sentence under that new law.

But during a May court hearing, Nashville Judge Steve Dozier agreed that Gant didn’t pose a threat to any

children because her drug deal happened during the summer when kids weren’t in school.

Gant apologized to her friends and family and thanked the court for her reduced sentence.

Eaton says Gant’s case was “symbolic” of the type of “unfairness” caused by drug-free school zone laws.

“None of Ms. Gant’s offenses occurred at a time or a place where children were actually exposed. They

were in the summertime. They were at night. They were on her own property,” Eaton said. “I think you’ll

find in any metropolitan area, particularly in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, people live near


Eaton says Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk is committed to addressing injustices in the community.

“These laws were applied and these arrests were made in ways that illustrated injustice that frankly lead to

abuse and over-policing and contributed to mass incarceration,” Eaton said.