For an example of the latter, look no further than a recent edition of the Tyler Morning Telegraph, where we read the story of a man who received a 60 year sentence for possession of 1.46 grams of meth and 2.93 grams of marijuana ("Meth possession nets convicted felon 60 years," March 6). Reported the paper:
I find it difficult to imagine a prosecutor with a straight face asking for life imprisonment for this petty nonviolent offender, and more difficult still to understand how 12 sentient people in my hometown could agree a 60 year sentence was in order. He'll be eligible for parole after 15, but "eligible" doesn't mean that's when they let him out. In any event, at current costs, that means taxpayers will spend a quarter of a million (2008) dollars, minimum, and up to a million dollars to incarcerate this guy.Rickie Dawson York, who turned 39 on Tuesday, pleaded guilty to possessing 1.46 grams of meth on Oct. 16. A Smith County jury sentenced the Tyler man after 25 minutes of deliberation in 241st District Judge Jack Skeen Jr.'s court.The third-degree felony, which carried a punishment range of two to 10 years in prison, was enhanced to a first-degree, with a possible sentence of 25 years to life in prison, because of his two prior felony convictions. York will have to serve 15 years before he is eligible for parole. ...He possessed 1.46 grams of meth and 2.93 grams of marijuana, according to lab reports.York, also known as Mark Burton, was convicted of delivering marijuana in Dallas County in 1996 and possessing a prohibited weapon in Smith County in 2006, for which he was on parole. Beginning in 1987, he has also has been convicted of theft, possession of a controlled substance, failure to identify/fugitive from justice, criminal mischief and theft by check.Assistant Smith County District Attorney Zach Davis said York continued to commit offenses whenever he was released from jail or prison and will never change his behavior. The defendant testified he has had a drug problem for 21 years but, Davis said, he has never sought treatment for his addiction.He asked the jury to sentence York to life in prison to send him a message to stop using and selling drugs and stealing from people.Defense attorney Steven Comte said the punishment range was 25 years to life only because of York's criminal history, but that he has been punished and has served his sentences for all of his prior convictions."There is nothing about Mr. York's history that is violent and life should be reserved for the most heinous individuals out there," he said.
So the next time you hear Williamson County DA John Bradley complain in the press that the parole board has released some violent felon early, remember why they're doing it: Too many low-level, nonviolent offenders are serving long, mandatory sentences, taking up space needed to keep violent criminals there longer, especially since the state can't manage to staff the prisons we've got.
Actually proposing to reduce sentences for drug crime is almost a third rail in politics - a sure fire way to draw an opponent in the next cycle claiming you're soft on crime. But this would be a smart place to start. From a fiscal and safety perspective, it makes tremendous sense to reduce the highest penalties for drug possession from the first degree felony category (5-99 years) to a second degree felony (2-20). A corollary reform would be to disallow low-level possession charges to justify "habitual offender" status.
The long-term savings would be dramatic, and it's hard to argue from a public safety perspective that mere drug possession, with no commercial transaction or violence involved, should ever receive more than a 20 year sentence. But the change would reduce not just long-term incarceration costs but rising healthcare costs for older prisoners, which is the primary cost driver right now in prisons for health care. Every year 1.5% more people come into TDCJ, according to UTMB, but 14% more every year turn 55 years old, after which they have 5-6 times more medical visits than younger offenders.
Ironically, because of the way the Legislative Budget Board calculates its cost estimate for sentencing increases (and reductions, if there were such a thing) doesn't calculate far enough into the out years to capture the savings. But when you consider the savings from just this one example, a max sentence of 20 years would save taxpayers somewhere in the range of 2/3 of a million (2008) dollars. When you start to add up the number of drug users being convicted every year, at those costs, pretty soon it starts to add up to real money.