Saturday, January 17, 2009

Williamson DA sees drug penalty debate as turf war

Speaking of venting prosecutors, what do you think is Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley's biggest beef with a proposal by Houston judges to reduce drug possession penalties from a felony to a misdemeanor?

You guessed it: It would reduce the scope of his personal, bureaucratic turf. We can't have that! Bradley writes on the District and County Attorneys user forum:
If SJF drug cases become misdemeanors, the shift in workload from district to county courts at law would be substantial. In selfish terms, a DA with only felony jurisdiction (like myself) would suddenly have an enormous percentage of the caseload moved off the docket. A county attorney with only misdemeanor jurisdiction (such as my colleague in Williamson County) would suddenly find herself with lots of new cases.

This would be an extraordinary movement of resources for no reason other than someone deciding to reclassify the crime from felony to misdemeanor. Punishment would require county dollars (in county jail) rather than state dollars (in state jail).
Perhaps so, but those crimes have mandatory probation on the first offense, anyway, so the impact on jails wouldn't be as substantial as Bradley makes out, certainly not "the biggest unfunded mandate ever perpetrated by the Texas Legislature," as JB hyperbolizes. The Lege could further mitigate additional costs by making the charge a state jail felony on the third offense.

There are a lot of public policy benefits to producing fewer new drug felons on possession-only charges: Not only does it save public resources on incarceration, with only a misdemeanor rap, petty offenders won't have the lifelong employment, housing and educational consequences that come with having a felony on your record.

Sentences for state jail felonies are a flat two years, so reduced costs to the state would be substantial - as much as $36,000 in incarceration costs alone for every new felony inmate diverted. That frees up a lot of money, as Judge Michael McSpadden pointed out, to pay for funding new misdemeanor drug courts.

The Lege could also simultaneously enact policies that would reduce jail populations for other drug offenses. E.g., reducing petty marijuana possession to a (ticket only) Class C misdemeanor would reduce arrests, jail overcrowding, indigent defense costs, and actually increase local revenue to help pay for the new Class As because arrests would generate fine revenue.

There are absolutely ways the Texas Legislature could adjust drug penalties that would save the state and counties money overall, if there's the political will. It's fascinating to me that the first argument out of the box from opponents isn't based on some moral commitment that penny ante drug use deserves felony charges, but just that it might slice off a chunk of the District Attorneys' turf.

RELATED: States reducing inmate numbers to save money: Should Texas?

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think you may have missed his point. I took his "selfish" comment as a note that he was reacting to it from his perspective rather than out of a desire to protect his turf. (Indeed, the entire post seems more concerned with the increased caseload in misdemeanor court, than the decrease in his own.) His real point seems to be that the Texas legislature is notorious for forcing counties to take care of things without providing funding. As you know, this happens a lot, and could be very likely in these financially strapped times. Whatever personal antipathy you might have for him, he may have more of a point in this regard than you are giving him credit for. In the end, you are both seeing this in terms of dollars and cents, you just trust that the legislature will take the savings from the state funds and use it to cover the increased misdemeanor dockets. He doesn't, but that doesn't make him any more unreasonable than you.

Don said...

Anon 9:32

Part of the cost of trying felonies accrues to the county anyway, doesn't it? And the CSCD is the same department for felonies and misdemeanors. I rather doubt that Bradley is more concerned with the "unfunded mandate" than with protecting his turf. He does have a small point, but he makes it into a monumental, earth-shaking thing, which it is not. I agree with Scott. I read Bradley a lot, mostly for comic relief because I tired of getting mad at him. The thing that jumped out at me in his post was the "given" that regardless of which jail they go to, they must go to SOMEBODY'S jail. Every time. That's vintage Bradley. By the way, do you work for him?

kaptinemo said...

How many times must the system be 'tweaked' before the recognition is made that it is the system, itself, that is the problem?

The 'system', in this case, is drug prohibition, which is the font of the complained-about caseload. Prior to 1914 and the Harrison Narcotics Act, which Federalized drug 'crimes' such as possession, we didn't have these problems...or caseloads.

Why bother playing around with trying to unravel the Gordian Knot of drug prohibition and all its' baggage? We've been trying to do that, to the tune of a trillion dollars since 1968, and we're no closer to achieving a drug-free utopia now than they were back then...as the complained about caseload demonstrates. A caseload we can no longer fiscally afford. It's long past time to consider the once unthinkable, and to speak the once forbidden, and talk about alternatives to the present - and punitive - DrugWar.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I don't think I missed his point, 9:32, I just disagreed with it. I think he's hyperbolizing the costs and discounting for no reason McSpadden's call to spend savings to bolster misdemeanor courts, which would have to be done as a practical matter.

Anonymous said...

"His real point seems to be that the Texas legislature is notorious for forcing counties to take care of things without providing funding."

You hit a home run 9:32. Are you a jail administrator?


“A county attorney with only misdemeanor jurisdiction (such as my colleague in Williamson County) would suddenly find herself with lots of new cases.

This would be an extraordinary movement of resources for no reason other than someone deciding to reclassify the crime from felony to misdemeanor. Punishment would require county dollars (in county jail) rather than state dollars (in state jail).”

I agree. As January 1, 2009, there were in Texas county jails 5087 pre trial state jail felons, 1448 convicted county jail state jail felons and 1095 convicted state jail felons (paper ready). Granted all are not in for these drug offenses, but I would venture to say 80% or more are. In addition, they were 448 inmates waiting on beds at SAFP.

Counties are responsible for costs associated with housing these inmates until release to TDCJ. Reducing the mentioned drug offenses from SJ felony to an A misdemeanor has the potential to create an increase of prosecutions for county attorneys and local county jail populations in the way of revocation charges, most revocations for not paying probation fees or failing UA’s. Supervision of more probationers and housing costs for revocations is where unfunded mandates come into play for counties. And I don't believe offenders on the county level get the needed treatment programs.

“The Lege could further mitigate additional costs by making the charge a state jail felony on the third offense.”

Additional costs for the state or counties? 2nd offense costs mentioned for first offenses will apply to counties. Most of these defendants will be previously convicted SJ felony drug offenders. How many more chances do the se offenders require?

“Sentences for state jail felonies are a flat two years, so reduced costs to the state would be substantial - as much as $36,000 in incarceration costs alone for every new felony inmate diverted. That frees up a lot of money, as Judge Michael McSpadden pointed out, to pay for funding new misdemeanor drug courts.”

Will new misdemeanor drug courts be created in metro areas only or will rural counties be included?

“The Lege could also simultaneously enact policies that would reduce jail populations for other drug offenses. E.g., reducing petty marijuana possession to a (ticket only) Class C misdemeanor would reduce arrests, jail overcrowding, indigent defense costs, and actually increase local revenue to help pay for the new Class As because arrests would generate fine revenue.”

Because most C violators for traffic violations cut deals for information, if the popo finds a petty amount of marijuana, the dude is going for the ride so when they get to the jail they get the opportunity to roll on someone, only after they have been booked and bailed. You don’t like it, but that’s the way it works.

As of August 31, 2008, there were over 100,000 non traffic class c misdemeanors out of over 695,725 filed that are pending in Justice of Peace court dockets. For all categories in Municipal courts, there are over 1,000,000 pending.

We don’t need any more Class cases, we got enough FTA's in jail already!

Anonymous said...

Did he ever express the same worry about costs from sending thousands of less than a gram offenders to TDCJ? That's an "unfunded mandate" too, just in the other direction!

Anonymous said...

"Another idea comes from State Rep. Harold Dutton, who filed a bill that would significantly depopulate state jails (like the one in the way of Dallas' Trinity development) within a two year stretch: HB 287 would reduce the penalty for possession of less than a gram of illegal drugs from a state jail felony to a Class A misdemeanor."

I understand what you are saying and I'm on board with misdemeanor field citations, I'm afraid that something like this will have a trickle down effect and cause county jail populations to increase in the jailing of probation violators.

We all know that county probationers are not going to get any drug rehabilitation, but we do know they will have to pay exorbitant probation fees. And those that cannot pay who should not have been put on probation in the first place because they cannot pay, will go to jail.

Anonymous said...

I have no idea what you are saying 5:54.

I think that they could make it work. At least, that what my boss tells me that I am paid to do at my job. When a problem arises, we make it work.

Of course, I don't work for any part of the government. I guess that means we have no one else to blame.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

5:54, last I saw drug cases made up around half of state jail felonies, not 80%. The savings to the state would be MUCH more than the new costs you describe, so it's not at all out of the question that the state could write a bill that addresses your concerns.

Also, if the offense category were reduced to a misdemeanor, it would eliminate for counties the cost for holding those paper-ready SJF inmates, so I don't know why you think that matters in this debate. And I don't understand why you think funding for new misdemeanor courts wouldn't go to urban areas.

Otherwise, you seem to be under the misimpression that just because things ARE a certain way, that's the way they MUST be. E.g., you write, "if the popo finds a petty amount of marijuana, the dude is going for the ride so when they get to the jail they get the opportunity to roll on someone, only after they have been booked and bailed." But if they reduced the penalty from a Class B to C, those are ticket-only offenses. Just because they arrest and jail them now doesn't mean that's the best or most efficient use of either their time or county jail space. I get that's what happens now, but if they need to free up jail space, my point is there are pretty direct, simple ways to do it.

6:07 makes a great point: If only Bradley's concern for the taxpayers was similarly focused on costs from incarceration to the state from long prison sentences! But he wants the state build more prisons, ad infinitum, even when they're so understaffed the state can't keep open all the units it's got. In light of those unrealistic demands, his (overstated) concerns about costs to counties don't merit much sympathy, IMO - especially when the problem is so easily fixed.

Anonymous said...

"The savings to the state would be MUCH more than the new costs you describe, so it's not at all out of the question that the state could write a bill that addresses your concerns."

I think what 5:54 was trying to say was all costs asssociated with housing and probation on the county level will go will go up.

Counties can look for an increase in medical, dental, utilities, food, transportation, and personnel, just to mention a few.

And more individuals with mental health issues confined in local jails. Another unfunded mandate that has remain neglected for years. Jail is not the place for the mentally ill.

No, these reductions in penalty grades is more about the state making money; in the way of less state prisoners and more revenue to the state comptroller in the way of state court fees that do not go in local coffers. These state fees are nothing more than a tax.

In 2002, the state fees on a C misdemeanor was $40.00. In 2007, it was raised to $82.00, and which by the way now includes a $6.00 state judges salary fee. I guess the lege put that one in there when they gave district judges a $25,000 a year increase during a special session that was called for trying to solve the school finance.

State Fines, Fees, and Costs on a Traffic Conviction in Municipal Court

January 2002 January 2008
Crime Victim Compensation Fund $15.00 $15.00
Judicial/Court Personnel Training 2.00 2.00
Fugitive Apprehension Fund
5.00 5.00
Consolidated Court Costs
* 17.00 17.00
Juvenile Crime/Delinquency
(Prairie View A&M) .50 .50
Correction Management Institute
(Sam Houston State University)
.50 .50
State Traffic Fine - 30.00
Jury Pay - 4.00
State Judges’ Salaries - 6.00
Indigent Defense - 2.00
Total $40.00 $82.00
Percentage Increase, 2002-2008= 105 percent
*Includes a state fee for the law enforcement management institute, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, comprehensive rehabilitation for certain accident victims, crime stoppers assistance, and more.

Every legislature in recent years has turned to municipal courts as revenue-producers for the state, and the last legislature was no exception.

These fees were added despite the fact that the legislature is holding a multi-billion-dollar surplus of state funds that could be used for indigent defense or to pay the salaries of state judges.

Municipal courts continue to represent an irresistible source of revenue that allows the state to avoid a tax increase, balance the state’s books, or retain a surplus of funds.

The state requires that in the event of a partial payment, the state court costs must be paid first, before the city can keep any of the fine. This means that the cities have to do all the work entailed in collecting fines, but retain no revenue until the state court costs have been satisfied.

While cities can keep a small percentage of the costs as an administrative fee, that amount is not sufficient to reimburse the cities for the bookkeeping and administrative problems connected with this function. Second, when setting an appropriate fine for an offense, a municipal judge must consider the fact that the defendant will also be paying state court costs. As a result, municipal fine revenue is often lower than it would otherwise be, because the judge has considered the state court costs when setting a defendant’s total fine.

As a result, municipal fine revenue is often lower than it would otherwise be, because the judge has considered the state court costs when setting a defendant’s total fine.

The bottom line is that cities can’t raise court fines fast enough to satisfy the state’s ever-growing appetite for revenue, while simultaneously maintaining the amount retained by cities.

I will give the lege one thing if they go allow with the reduction proposal. They will have recognized those 3000 guard positions cannot be filled with persons withof impeccable credentials and backgrounds.

Anonymous said...

"Also, if the offense category were reduced to a misdemeanor, it would eliminate for counties the cost for holding those paper-ready SJF inmates, so I don't know why you think that matters in this debate."

Beacuse those people obviously need drug treatment. Without it, the chances of returning are greater. And if they return because of a revocation, they will do that time in a county bed.

You may have metioned this in your article and I missed it but one thing is for sure, if these reductions are passed, the savings for the state need diverting to mental health and drug rehab programs, not giving executive director state employees a pay raise or increasing the lege's monthly office expense. That money will need to be found somewhere else.

Rage Judicata said...

If counties were held more accountable for the Texas prison over-crowding crisis, perhaps they will think twice before contributing to it.

Anonymous said...

"If counties were held more accountable for the Texas prison over-crowding crisis, perhaps they will think twice before contributing to it."

Give some examples, don't just make a general statement. Is it your county, some or all?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I think he's talking about the general structure of the system. There's an incentive for prosecutors to push for long felony sentences because counties don't have to raise taxes to pay for it.

If counties got a bill for half the state incarceration cost for every prisoner they sent to TDCJ, e.g., local law enforcement would have different economic incentives and likely make different decisions. But right now, the jail costs money basically only during pretrial, while sending people to TDCJ is "free" from the county's perspective. It's not a true analysis from the taxpayer's perspective, but that's the current incentive and it creates perverse, bloated results.

Rage Judicata said...

There's an incentive for prosecutors to push for long felony sentences because counties don't have to raise taxes to pay for it.

It doesn't even have to be a long sentence. Any sentence that gets them sent to TDCJ as opposed to making them spend time in the local pokey. But that's only half of the problem.


Give some examples, don't just make a general statement. Is it your county, some or all?

This is the other half.

On the right of the screen on Grits' home page is a list of links. Scroll down to "Current Texas Jail Population by County," click on it, and review the number of counties that are holding people in jail. Because over-incarceration and the associated costs start at home.

Already counties are holding thousands of low-level offenders in jail prior to trial. It's due mostly to a "tough on crime" mentality that has no proven benefit to law enforcement. Because many counties are already full to the brim (or over) with low-level offenders, they'll think twice about future inmates if they're going to have to take in a new low-level class of offenders and house them in jail.

They'll look harder at jail alternatives for the lowest level and non-violent offenses, which they should have been doing all along. They'll be more likely to cite and summons, as opposed to arrest, which many counties refuse to do. They'll think twice about setting huge bails for them, even if bail bondsmen are contributing to their campaigns...

It's all about alternatives. Alternatives that still punish the wrongdoer, but it keeps low-level offenders out of jail more often, so it has less of an impact on their families (their kids didn't deserve to be punished because the parent is an idiot), increases the level of restitution (because they can look for or keep a job, and have income coming in as opposed to sitting in a jail cell), and keeps them from being a burden on taxpayers.

For every 61 people we keep in jail, we spend $1million dollars in incarceration costs alone, per year. Harris county has over 1,000 misdemeanants in jail, right now. Bexar County over 800, with similar number for counties all over the state, proportionate to their population. It is a colossal waste of taxpayer money, for no return of safety.

Grits has posted about each of these issues until he's blue in the face. I personally think the only way to see action is with a systemic approach that overcomes the tough on crime false bravado of prosecutors and judges. And the only way to do that is hit them where it hurts--in their budgets. As a result, I see economic extortion as a good thing. A necessary evil. The Williamson County DA uses it to bluster about unfunded mandates, when what he's really worried about is a reduction in his importance/paycheck as a result of being in charge of a smaller bureaucracy. The more people he has working for him, the less actual work he has to do. That's the way bureaucracies work--they always want to be bigger.

Don said...

Rage is right on. Except I doubt if Bradley cares about the amount of work he has to do. I don't think the man is lazy. I think it's the power, and perceived importance of his office, and of himself. Mostly himself. He is all for police state, as long as he is the police. Megalomania, maybe?

Rage Judicata said...

He is all for police state, as long as he is the police.

That's because as part of the system, he's got the only hammer. And everybody else looks like a nail.

Anonymous said...

"Beacuse those people obviously need drug treatment."

I understand the impulse to mandate treatment 7:37. But the truth is that many offenders really are not addicts. They are casual users who happen to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mandating drug treatment, especially for the first time offender seems to me would only create another costly problem.

I think drug treatment needs to focus on the multiple offender. A substantial inpatient program with cognative behavioral therepy attached as an alternative to prison.

Just an opinion.

Anonymous said...

From what I have observed from watching John Bradley during the Legislative Judicial Hearings, he is the center of his universe and whatever he wants, he thinks should happen or be given to him.

How does he continue to get elected? Do the people of Williamson County ever watch the Judicial Hearings and hear him rant and praise himself and what he thinks and wants?

He loves to hurt people and does not take into consideration, what goes around, does come around and one day, he too will find himself without. One cannot continue to hurt the lives of families and their loved ones and not suffer the rath of God!!

Anonymous said...

I agree. Bradely is a self centered jerk. He will get his in due time.

I just wish it was sooner rather than later. He has ruined far too many lives already.

As for reducing penalties for possession, ------ should have been done years ago!

Anonymous said...

Bradley wasn't elected the DA, he was appointed by Gov. Perry back a few years ago. Bradley has never been challenged in an election since his appointment.

We need a brave soul to step up to the plate and run against Bradley. And I can't emphasize "brave" enough.

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