Monday, November 27, 2006

LTEs support Judge McSpadden's appeal to reduce drug sentences

Two letters to the editor caught my eye last week in the Houston Chronicle - one from a long-time grand juror, another from a drug court supporter working with the religious community. Both wrote to support Judge McSpadden, the hard-line GOP jurist who wants to reduce drug sentences to clear big-city felony dockets (see this prior Grits post). Here's what they had to say:
Let reason prevail

I AM wholeheartedly in support of state Judge Michael McSpadden and the Chronicle's editorial board for their enlightened approach to our "bogged down" legal system in Harris County (see the Chronicle's Nov. 21 editorial "Smarter on crime / It's time for Harris County to heed the message of a tough-on-crime judge about handling of drug cases").

Having served on grand juries since 1997, I have been appalled by the waste of time, money and young lives by our self-righteous system.

Trace elements of any controlled substance are treated as felonious contraband that subjects the holder to be sentenced to a two-year term in our state jails.

I appealed to Harris County years ago for our courts to consider "possession of narcotics paraphernalia" as an alternative — the way it is commonly handled in most of the other 253 jurisdictions in Texas — but to no avail.

The system we have is turning out a whole generation of unemployed thieves because once a person receives a felony conviction, it's near impossible to get a job anywhere. Not many employers want to take a chance on hiring a felon.

The felon feels there no hope of gainful employment, so he or she commits more crime, and the taxpayers end up bearing the burden.

We must move into the 21st century and solve this drug problem. Filling up our jails is obviously not the correct approach.

Perhaps the Legislature will allow reason to prevail in its next session but we can't just keep putting one foot in front of the last one.

BOB RYAN Houston

Drug courts work

SENDING nonviolent drug offenders to state jail for six months to two years further ruins the lives of drug addicts arrested for simple possession. The Chronicle's Nov. 21 editorial was aptly titled "Smarter on crime."

Two years ago, the state of New York reported saving $254 million by sending these individuals to drug courts instead of to jail.

Harris County has established three drug courts, led by Judge Caprice Cosper. They are performing admirably but lack funds for treatment. That's why the Harris County Drug Court Foundation was started up to address this moral issue.

Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston is helping us reach out to the faith community to help support the drug courts. Selected offenders are receiving three months of residential treatment followed by transitional help.

Those Houstonians who are interested in helping to solve what is really a public health issue — not a criminal justice issue — may contact us.

GABRIEL M. GELB treasurer, Harris County Drug Court Foundation, Houston


Anonymous said...

( I guess you missed this editorial in the Chron a few days before)

Nov. 25, 2006, 8:30PM
Our lock 'em up justice is a loser
Harris County doesn't need to build any more jail cells. We need to construct common-sense sentencing policies.


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The Harris County jail has reached 102.31 percent of capacity, 9,660 inmates, as of Oct. 1. That is about 1,000 more inmates than mandated by the state (90 percent capacity is the rule).

The county wants to spend $267 million for construction of new jails that will take many millions of dollars more to operate each year. While Harris County and the city of Houston struggle to hire qualified peace officers, these proposed jails threaten to divert hundreds of new peace officers to the job of warehousing inmates. Flawed criminal justice policy, not crime, is the cause of our jail overcrowding.

Only 1,297 jail inmates (around 14 percent of the total jail population) are convicted misdemeanor offenders serving their sentence. There are more than three times that many not yet convicted, just waiting for trial - more than 4,000 pretrial detainees.

Working-class people live paycheck to paycheck and need to get out of jail while awaiting trial to feed their families and to afford a private lawyer, rather than a county-paid lawyer, to defend them.

Harris County's pretrial release agency creates one of the lowest personal recognizance bond (get out of jail with a promise to appear in court) rates in Texas. Originally created a few decades ago to ease jail populations, this local bureaucracy has grown and now feeds itself with a diet of probation fees and burdensome bond conditions. Harris County has the highest probation revocation rate of any major county in Texas due to the onerous conditions.

The Harris County jail is also holding 1,319 state jail felons as compared to an additional 577 for the entire rest of the state. Why won't the state take them? Maybe it is because Harris County is the state's per capita leader in jailing trace drug cases, such as empty cocaine vials.

All sides of the issue agree that drug treatment works, so let's do it. State District Judge Michael McSpadden suggests treating trace drug cases as misdemeanors. Good idea. While we're at it, how about spending a fraction of the $267 million of proposed new jail money on a 1,000-bed drug treatment facility?

Harris County has a growing population categorized as "others" that fits into no listed category of jail inmates as reported by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Last August, the county held 799 "others" and in September this grew to 940 - the largest per capita amount anywhere in the state. Many of these "others" are people sentenced to drug treatment who are languishing in jail, often for many months, waiting to start their treatment.

Our criminal court judges also contribute to the jail overcrowding. They do so by hiring plea-bargain attorneys in clear defiance of state law (the Fair Defense Act) and creating an assembly line of one-size-fits-all prison or jail sentences. Some judges jail individuals merely for failing to have a lawyer and also give jail time after a jury mandates probation. These practices must stop.

Just who is driving new jail construction? The four Harris County commissioners have millions of dollars, much from construction interests, in their campaign accounts. Does that answer the question?

Conservatives, moderates and liberals agree: No more jails in Harris County.

Kallinen is a Houston civil-rights lawyer who is an adviser to the University of Houston Law School's Criminal Justice Institute and a board member of the Harris County Criminal Lawyer's Association. He can be emailed at

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I linked to it two items below, actually, but thanks! Since Charles Kuffner had already written it up, and Doc Berman linked to it, I just linked to them. best,

Anonymous said...

I wonder if someone were to check on Judge McSpadden's use of the pretrial services program in Harris County what would they find? I am certain he does not utilize the personal bond release option offered by that agency nor does he utilize the supervision services offered by that agency regardless of the type of bail - cash bond, surety bond, personal bond - a defendant uses to secure release.
If he really felt such offenders did not need to be in the criminal justice system as felons would it not make sense that he utilize unsecured release and/or supervision services that allowed for drug testing, monitoring, and treatment services. I regret that we likely already know the answer to this rhetorical question. I am reminded that "actions speak louder than words".

Catonya said...

The first LOE reminded me of something I've been curious about for a very long time...

How are jurors picked for a grand jury, and how long do they serve?