Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On the benefits to county budgets, local police coverage from reducing pot penalties

Grits has been arguing that budget cuts in corrections will require policy changes in addition to merely reducing line items at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, a reality that other states like Arizona and Oklahoma are struggling with as well. One of the simplest, most elegant and helpful solutions would be to ratchet down drug penalties one notch all the way across the board - both for felony levels and misdemeanor marijuana charges. I've been focused on ways to save money in the state budget - particularly through lowering "less-than-a-gram" cases from a state jail felony to a Class A misdemeanor, and long-term by reducing the highest felony drug penalties (which at current levels often exceed murder sentences).

But savings to county budgets would be significant as well, particularly as it regards marijuana arrests. And just as important, lowering penalties would free up police officers to focus on more important crimes. Right now possession of an ounce of weed is a Class B misdemeanor, which means police typically arrest the person, take them to the jail, and the arresting officer is out of circulation for some period of time (let's conservatively say an hour) for booking and processing. After that, the county must pay for attorneys for the indigent among them, jail and court costs, etc.. And in the end most sentences are probated, misdemeanor probation caseloads become bloated, fines and fees collected don't cover costs, particularly for indigent defendants, and the whole process comes to seem rather pointless all the way around.

Ratcheting down the penalty to a Class C for low-level pot possession would save money on jail time, indigent defense, and keep more officers on the street to focus on more significant crimes. Plus Class Cs generate fine income without the county paying for indigent defense, etc.. California recently shifted to fine-only tickets for low-level pot possession, but it's been in place so short a time I doubt there's data yet on payment rates. In any event, we're talking about a lot of resources devoted to pot possession arrests. These data were compiled from Chapter 8 of DPS' annual Texas Crime Report: 

Marijuana Arrests as a Percentage of All Texas Drug Possession Arrests

2006: 52.1%
2007: 52.7%
2008: 54.6%
2009: 57.9%

At a time when clearance rates for offenses from burglary to murder are low, these data represent misplaced crime fighting priorities. Texas law enforcement arrested 69,956 adults for marijuana possession in 2009. If 80% of those were ticketed without arrest, that would have been 55,965 fewer arrests statewide. Assuming each arrest takes the officer off the street for one hour, reducing this penalty would be the equivalent of adding nearly 7,000 8-hour officer days on Texas' streets to perform other, more important tasks, without paying one dime extra! And those assumptions still allow for police to arrest one person in five found in possession of marijuana, including juveniles, those also engaged in other crimes, and those who pose a threat to themselves or others.

This suggestion does not propose "decriminalization," and pot possession would still be illegal, just like possession of harder drugs. The penalties would just be rationalized to reflect the state's actual ability to pay for them, and to get more bang for the buck from our criminal justice dollars at all levels of the justice system.


Anonymous said...

Stop it, Grits. This all just makes TOO MUCH SENSE! You are going to make some poor "tough on crime" politico's head explode with your logic and reasoning!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant suggestions! I'm going to forward this article to my local state representatives with some of my own thoughts. Can you suggest names of the legislators who need to hear these sentiments as well (committee chairs, etc...)? I appreciate your skillful articulation and common sense solutions for improving the criminal justice system while simultaneously saving the taxpayers money.

Anonymous said...

Wait just a minute Grits. This goes against the whole Jim Crow war on minorities, I mean drugs, that has been waged by our right wing judgmental tough on crime fundamentalist for the last several decades. How would we lock up/employee all these undesirables we have in our state? Just to be bipartisan in my sarcasm, From a left wing Clinton agenda, how would we prevent these people from getting housing and welfare or a job if we don’t convict them of felonies? Wouldn’t that cost more in welfare if we don’t lock up/employee these people in our criminal justice job corps? And what about that very large captive audience for Christian prison ministries? What would the dido woman out of Burleson that our governor wanted to appoint for the parole board say about this? She would make a great poster child for the Texas criminal justice system as it stands today.

Sure your ideas make very good sence in a democracy but in a class system that we have in Texas, I just don’t see it. Besides our governor is pretty clear that if you want to smoke pot or want gay marriage you need to move out of our closed minded fundamentalist state. Pretty soon we’ll figure a way to outlaw abortion, then what will become of all those judgmental fundi’s who provide free advertisement for abortion clinics? If that happens there will be even more undesirables who will need to be locked up/employed in our criminal justice system job corps. However, if you want to molest children, we do have a state agency for that, tyc.

In Texas it is a fundamental right and religious duty for many not to take responsibly for their mistakes, dumping them on some other object. Coupled with a tenacious desire to fiercely judge, punish, and condemn others who aren’t white and/or don’t think the same way they do. I hope to see in my lifetime the rise of a common since majority to out vote this expensive frivolous fundamentalist agenda. Although look how long the dark ages lasted.

God Bless, Sheldon

Anonymous said...

Hey, Sheldon.
Put the doob down & lay off the ganja. It's not a felony he's talking about.

Anonymous said...

California prescribes a fine of $100 for possession of one ounce or less.

Could you determine from the DPS statistics how many marijuana possession arrests were made for two ounces or less (Class B misd.), four ounces or less but more than two ounces (Class A misd.), or any of the felonious amounts?

Anonymous said...

Sheldon, chill out, put the bong down and take a deep breath of fresh air. Grits is not talking about Jim Crow laws, abortion, tyc the rightwing agenda or anything else in your rant other than marijuana.

Bottom line the marijuana laws need to be changed and we all need to let our State Reps know how we feel. That way us police officers can get back to preventing and solving property and persons crimes instead of Misd. pot crimes.

By the way Grits the process time from arrest, to the towing of the vehicle or release to licensed driver, the drive to jail, book in, search and inventory at the jail is closer to two maybe two n half hours time off the streets. Then we still have to write the report, make a copy of the arrest video and mail it the CA office.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

9:03, the report doesn't break out the amounts, though they do break out manufacturing/sale separately. That's partly why I estimated 20% would still be arrested; some of those will be for larger amounts.

That said, FWIW in 2007 the Lege gave police authority to write tickets for pot possession for both Class B and A misdemeanors.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

11:31, just to say it, using your estimate of each arrest taking officers off the street for 2.5 hours, keeping constant other assumptions in the post, the proposed change would free up the equivalent of 17,489 8-hour officer days annually statewide.

Don said...

But LE already has option of "cite and summons" instead of arrest for low level pot offenders, and they mostly choose to go ahead and do the arrest anyway. That being tried and failed, lowering to Class C makes a lot of sense, which is one reason why it probably won't happen. If LE is so intent on arresting them, they could probably fabricate a way to do it. However, I strayed from the point, which is: If counties want to save money on incarceration this way, they could already be doing it, yet they are choosing not to.

Anonymous said...

Never pass in Wilco. Focus here is to make criminals out of everybody 13 to 80. Every day I hear a story of some kid taken to jail for some charge that 30 years ago would have not been prosecuted.

Anonymous said...

Don, you are correct that law enforcement has the right to "cite and summons" for class B misd. pot possession. The reason this is not done in the majority of the State is due to barriers put in place by the County Attorney and County Court Offices. It is much easier on the county attorney and court offices if the police officer arrest the subject and a court date is set by a magistrate. Many CA offices put a policy in effect mandating that police arrest for class B pot offenses. Their reason behind this was they did not want to hire or put in place a system for setting court dates for when those citizens who were cited start calling concerning thier pot ticket.

I do not understand thier reasoning behind this as the JP Court system already has this in place for class c misd. such as speeding tickets. Bottom line is people hate change and the CA has the ultimate say in the county concerning how he/she wishes to prosecute cases and the police have to play by his/her rules. It is not always the fault of the police.

Don said...

Anon. 11:08. Thanks for the info, but, like you, I don't understand it. For one thing, I didn't know a County Attorney could dictate to cops whether or not to arrest or cite and summons. The legislation supposedly leaves it up to the LE agency. This is what happens with most of the legislation that could be a good thing; somebody pops up and puts the kibosh on it. Anyway, looks like it would be the County Judge who set the dates. I don't understand the difference, since there's gonna have to be a date set by someone anyway, and it's not like these small county CA's are totally worked to death.

Anonymous said...

I don’t smoke pot its illegal, perhaps if I did I wouldn’t rant against the system so much. I do think that pot laws are stupid. Marijuana should have never been on the controlled substance list and knowing it was put there because people back then didn’t know what to do with it doesn’t make it any easier to accept. The climate of our government officials just seem to incapable to be rational. Rational people need to outnumber these folks and get these laws change. Battling this ignorance from a financial perspective can create change tell me what I can do. I would like to see all our prescription drug addicts have a more healthier option like weed. All those poor kids coming out of tyc with psychotropic drug addictions being able to use weed instead of the more destructive options provided by the system can be a major reduction in recidivism. But that does go against the whole Jim Crow mass incarceration agenda of our tough on crime fundamentalist crowd. I hope our governor is going to make good on his campaign promise because this advise Grits offers sure could get us there.
Scott Hanson for Governor

Anonymous said...

Scott, You are arguing for "...lowering "less-than-a-gram" cases from a state jail felony to a Class A misdemeanor..."

But, don't you really want to see drugs legalized?

Don said...

Anon 10:38 Wilco isn't part of the USA, is it?

Anonymous said...

sheldon i don't think youve been paying attention to the psychotropic situation in TYC.

Anonymous said...

I've been around courthouses, DA's and CA's for damn near 40 years and would observe that DA's and CA'
s could give three shits about jail overcrowding (Sheriff's problem) or the cost of incarceration (Commissioners Court problem).

CA's and DA's want to run the system as their kingdom. They want to direct the clerks, the police and all law enforcement, the judges, and the entire political leadership. And in a lot of places, they do.

Takes a big set of rocks to buck a local District Attorney.

Grits - this proposal is a non starter and not based in reality. Just the way it is. Good blog material though.

Plato of the Plains

Anonymous said...

Great suggestions Grits. It seems like the only thing our legislature can think about is increasing penalties or creating new crimes, not lowering existing ones that would be reasonable to do.

With respect to possession of 1 gram or less of harder drugs, reducing the penalties to a misdemeanor seems to be a no-brainer. It would be difficult to argue that use would increase, and offenders would still get a criminal record and have the drug seized. This isn't radical, but would save the state money, and perhaps give some people that make a bad choice or have an addiction to get their life back together more easily than being branded a felon.

Restructuring marijuana penalties is a good idea for many reasons. But one really important one often overlooked is a proportionality reason to consider. Marijuana's health effects and dangers to the public simply do not match the penalties we put on individual users. And what I mean is, yes marijuana is harmful, but relatively speaking, in context, it's not what some have made it out to be. For instance, this 2009 review on non-medical cannabis from the Lancet had this as part of its conclusion:

"The public health burden of cannabis use is probably modest compared with that of alcohol, tobacco, and other illicit drugs. A recent Australian study96 estimated that cannabis use caused 0·2% of total disease burden in Australia—a country with one of the highest reported rates of cannabis use."

It seems to me our penalties are too harsh for the crime. Class C would be more reasonable.

titfortat said...

Without going on a total rant about the obvious, I reiterate “get real” it should be legalized.

However since that’s not likely let’s look at the economics of prosecuting marijuana users given your scenario.

The economic impact in both savings and in income generation through fines if Class B’s are reduced to Class C’s if handled properly could be quite substantial.

However, if handled improperly then additional problems will be created that will in the end be very costly and counterproductive in warrants being issued and re-issued; re-arrest; booking; 24 hour in jail courts and court personell, and releasing.

So if the idea is to actually (do something) that positively effects the budget with an end result being positive in terms of where and how we utilize funds in criminal justice then a priority in how Class C’s are currently being handled should be to change current policies drastically.

The capias profine should be eliminated so that installment payments of fines remain possible when defendants fail to make timely payments, this is a simple process of re-issuing the warrant and allowing the defendant to post bond and stand before the court again and then be allowed to continue with installment payments.

And, even though those who advocate releasing Class C’s quickly for time served when arrested in the name of relieving jail overcrowding (would disagree) the time served policy serves no purpose whatsoever other than to spend lots of valuable resources for a return of absolutely nothing.

Class C’s if given a choice of sitting out time and reducing their fine on a day by day fine reduction basis, (the way it was done for decades) or being released will choose release and time payments over jail in the majority of cases and will readily post bond to be released.

When looking at Harris County alone and considering that HPD alone maintains an open warrant roster of over two million and then add at least that number to all of the other municipalities and Justice of Peace Courts in Harris County then the possible income generated over Class C’s suddenly becomes real and represents hundreds of millions in revenue that is lost on a consistent basis now at considerable cost to tax payers.

This same massive resource in revenue could be used on the other end of criminal justice to benefit rehabilitation methods and reintegration back into society methods to reduce overall recidivism.

kaptinemo said...

The way things are going, with the coming 'austerity' (for thee, not the Uber-Rich) moves intended to 'fix' (the way your local veterinarian does?) the economy, it may soon require the long-delayed public discourse on the feasibility of cannabis prohibition laws. Which would make arguing over the merits of reclassification of cananbis-derived arrests a moot point.

Tough times ahead for all...