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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn (WJHL) — Hundreds of people jailed for selling drugs in Tennessee school zones are eligible for early release after a change in state law.
Jordan Peters of Bristol was one of them.
The 31-year-old is trying to move on after serving 10 years of a 15-year sentence for a mistake he made when he was 19 years old.
“To this day, I can’t believe it,” Peters said. “I can’t believe I served that much time for something so minimal.”
The crime: selling $80 dollars worth of mushrooms.
“I didn’t want to do it at all because I wasn’t a drug dealer,” Peters said. “I just had a hard time saying no to people.”
Peters said, in 2009, he was struggling with anxiety and depression when a friend started hounding him to sell her drugs.
“I just gave into it and said ok,” Peters said.
He said the woman told him where to meet her for the exchange. Months later, he found out she was a police informant, the location was within 1,000 feet of a Bristol school, and he was in serious trouble under Tennessee’s Drug-Free School Zone law.
The Tennessee General Assembly passed the legislation calling it the toughest drug law of its kind in the nation. Anyone caught selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school faced 15 to 20 years in prison with no chance for early release.
“In effect, he would have served longer than someone potentially who committed second-degree murder,” said Gene Scott, Jordan Peters’ attorney.
Scott says almost 500 people were sentenced across Tennessee before lawmakers had second thoughts.
“I think the legislature finally realized there’s a cost to keeping these people in prison,” Scott said. “Do we really want to do that? Do we want to keep a nonviolent person in prison for so long? The answer is no.”
In 2020, the Tennessee General Assembly amended the Drug-Free School Zone law shrinking the zone from 1,000 to 500 feet. And they stipulated that children or other “vulnerable” people had to be present at the time of the crime.
But that 2020 change had no impact on the people like Jordan Peters already serving time. So last spring, lawmakers made a second amendment to the law allowing those previously convicted to have their sentences reconsidered.
Peters didn’t know it, but his case was mentioned specifically during a session of the Tennessee Senate as an example why the amendment needed to pass.
“You have stories like Jordan Peters who was caught selling $80 worth of mushrooms who went to jail for 15 years – no early release or anything,” said Sen. Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield) on the floor of the state Senate on April 11, 2022.
The measure passed unanimously.
Days later, Peters got the stunning news he was to appear via video link for a court hearing in Sullivan County. The next day, a Sullivan County judge informed him that, 10 years into his 15-year sentence, his sentence was complete and he was free to leave prison immediately.
“I was on a video screen and I said, ‘Dad, if you’re in there, I love you!’” Jordan said. “And he goes, ‘I love you back!’”
“I’ll remember that the rest of my life. That was one of the best moments of my life.”
Three weeks later, Jordan has his drivers license. He’s got a job. And he’s in therapy, trying to deal with a decade of his life he says has been lost.
“It messed me up mentally,” he said, referring to his time in state prison facilities. “I got to see things I wish I could unsee, met people I wish I’d never met, learned things I wish I’d never had to learn or shouldn’t even have had to learn just to survive in that kind of environment.”
“Help is what we needed,” he said of himself and other non-violent offenders arrested under Tennessee’s Drug-Free School Zone Law. “We didn’t need to get stuck behind bars. I needed someone to talk to, to lead me in the right path.”