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He got 17 Years for A First-Time Drug Offense. Now He's Asking Gov. Bill Haslam for Help

Calvin Bryant went to prison for a non-violent drug offense when he was 22. Ten years later, he has watched convicted murderers and rapists come and go.

But he's still there, and now he's asking Gov. Bill Haslam for help.

Bryant, now 32, got a 17-year sentence for low-level dealing.

Plenty of first-time felony offenders like Bryant don't get any jail time. But his penalty was ratcheted up because he was caught dealing party drugs in his apartment, which was within 1,000 feet of a school. The added penalty was used in even though no children were involved and the arrest occurred at night, when school was out.

It was a sentence a judge in the case called "harsh." The prosecutor in the case said Bryant should be let go. Twelve Nashville council members urged action.

The judge, Steve Dozier, suggested Bryant ask Haslam to step in and reduce his sentence. So this month Bryant filed a petition for a pardon or clemency. His lawyer Daniel Horwitz argued he had more than paid his debt to society.

In a letter to Haslam, Horwitz referenced the shifting understanding of school zone laws, which were designed to protect children from drugs and related crime. They have faced criticism from legal experts since Bryant was sentenced, particularly because they are more likely to affect minorities who live in densely populated urban areas.

"Mr. Bryant’s vastly disproportionate and possibly unparalleled sentence resulted from a toxic combination of harsh mandatory minimum sentencing, race, poverty and fatally arbitrary enforcement," Horwitz wrote in a letter to the governor.

"In light of the extraordinary nature of his case and widespread agreement that the decade that Mr. Bryant has already spent in prison represents sufficient punishment for his first-time, non-violent crime, Mr. Bryant’s clemency application is widely supported even by those who were involved in his prosecution."

The petition includes a promise that Bryant has a job waiting for him at Slim & Husky'sand a plea for mercy from his mother Annetta Bryant. She suffers from diabetes and her only son would be her primary caregiver if he was released.

"My son is a very good person with a good personality, and he stays in good spirits. I pray every single day that I am able to see him released," she wrote. "I feel like he has served his debt to society, and he deserves a second chance to prove to himself as well as society that he is a good individual."

Cases like Bryant's are handled differently today. District Attorney Glenn Funk, elected years after Bryant's arrest, said he would not use school zone laws to amp up drug sentences unless children were involved.

"We are optimistic that Gov. Haslam will right this grievous wrong," Horwitz said in a statement. "As the broad coalition of support for Calvin’s clemency campaign reflects, there is simply no circumstance in which it makes sense to punish a first-time, non-violent offender more harshly than a rapist or a murderer."

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