Monday, December 17, 2007

Federal crack sentencing changes won't much affect Texas; changes to state drug laws still needed

The much-ballyhooed SCOTUS decision on crack sentencing disparities will have little effect overall in Texas, reports the Houston Chronicle ("Crack ruling of little effect locally," Dec. 17) because the vast majority of drug cases come through state courts:
Since July 2006, there have been just over 1,400 drug-related convictions by federal prosecutors in South Texas, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice.

In contrast, the Harris County District Clerk's office said nearly 35,000 convictions for drug offenses were secured in county courts from Jan. 1, 2005, through Dec. 31, 2006, the most recent data available.

That's 35,000 convictions for drug offenses over two years in one Texas county, folks, albeit the county whose size and punitive judiciary exert an exceptional and negative influence on state policy. Legislative testimony earlier this year revealed that about 85% of felony drug cases in Houston - 12,000 out of 14,000 drug indictments in 2006 - were for possessing less than a gram of a controlled substance, or less powder than is in a Sweet-N-Low packet. The recent SCOTUS ruling won't affect any of those cases.

Indeed, the flood of low-level court cases in Houston led long-time State District Judge Michael McSpadden in recent years to implore the Legislature and Governor Perry to reduce drug possession sentences for small amounts, declaring that "These minor offenses are now overwhelming every felony docket, and the courts necessarily spend less time on the more important, violent crimes."

Not only that, every one of those convicted of a felony loses access to many employment and housing options that might otherwise help them pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Texas doesn't suffer statutory crack sentencing disparities like in the federal system, but that doesn't mean there's no problem with racial disparities in enforcing existing drug laws, most especially for black people. "Blacks make up 11 percent of the population of Texas," reported the Chronicle, "yet 46 percent of drug offenders serving time in the state's prisons are black, according to figures provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice."

The existence of racial disparities in Texas drug enforcement is obvious; the reasons for it, less so. We could debate here all day the reasons for racial disparities without reaching any firm conclusion. I don't know the answer to that complicated question.

But in an era when Texas prisons are completely full and severely understaffed, a bigger overall problem for law abiding citizens of all races, as Judge McSpadden indicates, is that the excessive focus of state and local policing, judicial, and incarceration resources on drug crimes reduces resources available to incarcerate more serious offenders, including violent criminals. That makes everyone less safe, including, disproportionately, black victims of violent crime.

13 comments:

W. W Woodward said...

Judge Michael McSpadden’s quote, “These minor offenses are now overwhelming every felony docket, and the courts necessarily spend less time on the more important, violent crimes."

There was a time when a conviction for possession of what is today considered a misdemeanor amount of marijuana would get one a life sentence as a guest of the governor. Jails and TCDJ-ID [or whatever the acronym was at that time] were beginning to be overpopulated, so in the middle ‘70s the legislature decided to reduce the penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Of course in those days the “evil reefer” was the epitome of vileness and depravity as is crack, cocaine, morphine, .o8 blood-alcohol, and/or [name your poison] is today.

Given enough time and constant overcrowding, excessive expense, and attention from the federal courts, the Texas legislature will repeat history once again and decide that possession of small amounts of the above list of nefarious substances are not deserving of felony status.

It will take time until the circle is completed, and there will be many small time dope users who probably will not deserve the draconian sentences they receive, but it will happen.

Ken Sparks said...

Using overcrowded prisons as a reason to lower the punishment for drug cases is simply wrong. It is similar to the argument that we should make long-used tests easier since not enough students are passing.

The only good reason to lower the punishment in drug cases is if the punishmsnt is disproportionate to the crime. This is what the debate should be about.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Well, Ken, is the punishment - a state jail felony for less than a gram cases - proportional to the crime?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Also, Ken, I disgree with you that it's "wrong" to consider resources in incarceration decisions. If we don't have enough prison space or guards to house all the violent offenders, it makes no sense to also house tens of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders. The state's responsibility is to maintain public safety.

When John Bradley complains to KXAN that some violent offender has been paroled, the reason is that prisons are full of lesser violators. The grade inflation analogy is BS - this is public safety, not grades in school or SAT scores. I think lack of resources to house dangerous offenders is an entirely justified reason to re-examine drug punishment levels, and I'd like to hear your reasoning why it's not, besides that it's just "wrong." best,

Rage Judicata said...

Sorry Ken, resources are a huge factor. Jails have to follow certain guidelines, and if we don't make decisions about who to put in the jails, lesser informed parole boards are going to take it upon themselves to let out more people to try and fix the problem the only way they know how--by letting people out regardless of their crime.

Ask the victims of Kenneth McDuff how appropriate that sort of parole policy decision is.

If you decide ahead of time how to address the problem, you can avoid putting the violent ones on the street to rob, rape, or kill--again.

Ken Sparks said...

Resources are always a problem. I blame the legislature for ignoring the fact that the number of criminals will increase as our population rises. Instead, we always have to get to a crisis stage before anything is done.

Low level felony drug offenders receive a probated sentence, as required by the legislature. But, it is the age-old question: how do you prevent someone from being seriously damaged or getting addicted to drugs? Do you increase the punishment in an attempt to stop them? Our war on drugs does not appear to be successful. Or would it be much worse if we did not have a war on durgs? Do you de-criminalize drugs altogether? I do not have the answers; I must use the law that is in place.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

OMG, population increases?! Uh ... no! Ken, surely you know better than that?!

Since 1978, Texas' population increased 67%, and the prison population increased 573%! Most of that growth is among nonviolent offenders.

The shortage of prison beds in Texas has ZERO, NOTHING to do with population growth. No offense, Ken, but it's frankly silly to even say so.

rage judicata said...

Resources are always a problem. I blame the legislature for ignoring the fact that the number of criminals will increase as our population rises. Instead, we always have to get to a crisis stage before anything is done.

Texas incarcerates more people than any other state per capita. Our crime isn't that bad.

If Texas was its own state, we'd have the highest incarceration rate in the world. Our crime isn't that bad.

Texas has more people in jail and under TDCJ control than the entire population of Alaska. Or New Hampshire. Or Montana. Our crime isn't that bad.

Some may argue that our crime is improving because all of our criminals are in jail. However, New York has shown a trend with both reduced prison population and reduced crime, as have other states. How do you explain their success, but our failure in that same area?

While I'm always happy to blame the legislature, the issues go deeper than that. Attitudes on crime are what get people elected or booted from office. The public at large has to be made to understand that being hard on a pot smoker does not necessarily mean that the punishment they receive is proportionate to their crime, especially in light of the resources we have at our disposal.

Some counties have gotten good at identifying the problems on a local level. Smith county is fed up with it. Corpus Christi dealt with resource problems a few years ago, creating dockets intended solely to reduce the local jail population.

There are answers out there that are effective that do not involve jailing everyone from the start. Especially when you're talking about limited resources.

rage judicata said...

Dang--should read "if Texas was its own country..."

Hate it when that happens

Anonymous said...

But, it is the age-old question: how do you prevent someone from being seriously damaged or getting addicted to drugs? (You don't. You butt out. You mind your own business. You remove your nose from being plowed so deeply into your neighbor's personal habits and life.)Do you increase the punishment in an attempt to stop them? (Already it is insane that so called good people can feel ok about punishing people the way it is being done and has been being done for a very long time, in our War on Drugs.) Our war on drugs does not appear to be successful. (No. It absolutely does not. It looks like a nightmare.)Or would it be much worse if we did not have a war on durgs? (Common sense says it would not be worse than it is now.)Do you de-criminalize drugs altogether? (Definitely. And legalization, altogether, for some of them and judicious regulation, of course, with the very lethal ones. At least as good a regulation as we have on legal lethal products, anyway.)I do not have the answers; (Some people do have some better ideas than what we are doing now... and they might be the "answers" you are seeking.)I must use the law that is in place. (Perhaps you could give at least lip service to trying to change it.)

W. W Woodward said...

I apologize for coming off like somebody's grandfather [which I am], but: When I first began policing, a theft of $50.00 was a felony. Stealing one head of "cattle, sheep, swine, or goats" was a felony. Beating one's wife was okay unless serious bodily injury resulted. It was legally impossible for a female to sexually assault a male. A husband could legally kill a man he found in bed with his wife, however wives did not enjoy the same privilege.

Criminals get cost of living raises on a fairly regular basis. It may not be right, Ken, but it's a fact of life. Money, politics, and knee jerk reactions dictate legislation. What's right or wrong seldom has anything to do with it.

Can you begin to imagine how many people would be incarcerated in TDC if $50.00 was still the cutoff point for felony theft? Money and/or overcrowding? You better believe it.

rage judicata said...

Beating one's wife was okay unless serious bodily injury resulted.

And Ann Richards said there never were the good ol' days.

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