Friday, March 11, 2011

Possession busts driving increased drug arrests: States tired of footing the bill

Will Texas join a growing number of states adjusting their drug laws to save money and focus criminal justice resources on more serious offenders? If they did, this blog has argued it would save many millions of dollars at both the state and county levels. Most opinion leaders think the Lege isn't "ready" to reduce drug sentences. Perhaps so, but I think it's also true they're not "ready" to handle the budget gap that's facing them. Desperate times call for bold measures, which is why, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal a week or so ago:
A growing number of states are renouncing some of the long prison sentences that have been a hallmark of the war on drugs and instead focusing on treatment, which once-skeptical lawmakers now say is proven to be less expensive and more effective.

Kentucky on Thursday became the latest to make the shift when Gov. Steve Beshear signed into law a measure increasing spending on rehabilitation programs and intensive drug testing. The law also reduces penalties for many drug offenses and may allow some traffickers and users of smaller amounts of drugs to avoid prison.

Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania are among those that have pending bills to reduce penalties for drug offenders, in some cases by directing defendants into treatment programs. Similar laws have taken effect in South Carolina, Colorado and New York in recent years. States have maintained stiff penalties for more-serious drug crimes.

While the changes are part of broader belt-tightening efforts, they also reflect a growing belief among state lawmakers that prosecuting drug offenders aggressively often fails to treat their underlying addiction problems and can result in offenders cycling in and out of prisons for years—a critique long voiced by groups that advocate in favor of defendants' rights.

"If you just throw everyone in jail, it's terribly expensive and they get out and they are in the same boat," said Tom Jensen, a Republican state senator in Kentucky who voted in favor of the law.
And isn't this chart amazing?

That matches the pattern in Texas. In 2009, according to DPS' Uniform Crime Report data (pdf), Texas law enforcement made 133,191 arrests for drug possession, or 88.9% of all arrests for drug-related crimes.  Further, 57.9% of all drug arrests in Texas that year were for marijuana, also mostly for user-level possession. Reducing small pot possession charges to Class C misdemeanors would free up county jail space and generate extra fine revenue at the local level. Meanwhile, in 2007 the fiscal note for a bill by state Rep. Harold Dutton, which would have reduced less-than-a-gram drug possession penalties from a state-jail felony to a Class A misdemeanor, estimated the measure would have cut state jail admissions by more than 8,700 per year. If passed along with reductions in marijuana penalties, the 8,700 extra misdemeanants would be more than made up for by clearing tens of thousands of pot cases from county courts and jails. Rep. Dutton has filed the same bills this session, and one of them is scheduled for a hearing in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee next Tuesday. (If the state really wants to save money on prison costs, they'd get even more bang for the buck by ratcheting down penalties for 1-4 grams to a state jail felony.)

Imprisoning drug addicts for possession isn't the sole driver of mass incarceration, but it's a big contributing factor. During a time of scarce resources, it makes sense to focus limited incarceration resources on more serious, dangerous offenders at both the state and county level. It's a fixable problem.

H/T Sentencing Law & Policy.


Texas Maverick said...

Last week when Rep. Dutton laid out the same bill, Rep Carter, rookie from Plano said she would charge all possession as a felony. With this mentality coming in to the leg. we are in serious trouble. There was lots of testimony in favor of the bill but the rational was for medical use and decriminalization. I only wish the emphasis had been on the financial and drug treatment.

Anonymous said...

But Grits, if a cop can only cite, as one HPD officer stated, "How are we going to punish them?" Don't ya just love it? :~)

Anonymous said...

Imprisoning drug addicts for possession may not be the sole driver of mass incarceration, but if you look at the numbers of those who had their first run-in with the legal system because of a possession charge and realize what it did to their lives, you might have a better understanding of the consequences.

Difficulty obtaining employment, housing, or even food stamps because of a blight on their record can often cause problems that lead to other criminal acts which may not have occurred had the user not been arrested in the first place. Millions of inmates across the nation can attest to this fact. Roughly half of the current inmates in our prisons were first arrested on simple possession charges.

Where would be if Bill Clinton had been arrested for possessing the joint that he didn't inhale? And what would have happened if George Bush had been convicted for his cocaine? The vast majority of people would outgrow their curiosity with dope if simply left alone like Bill and George.

DEWEY said...

Legalize marijuana and tax it. Might solve a lot of the budget shortfall.

PAPA said...

Until the Texas Legislators take control of the Border, Close it down, stop the flow of drugs coming across the is a no win situation. Controlling the source is the first solution. Where is the source coming from? comes across the border with the illegals. Send the illegals back. Get them out of the Texas Prison System and off the Texas Taxpayers payroll. Install the necessary equipment to document those that are illegal and can be monitored at the check points, by the law enforcers, to stop the flow of drugs and illegals.The money that can be saved from the criminal justice system action against low level possessors could be used to monitor the borders and illegals.Legalize the MJ it would stop a bunch of what is happening. GET REAL, what is being done now is NOT WORKING, what do you do when something doesn't WORK, change it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

PAPA, you realize, don't you, that a) the feds control the border, not the state, and b) "closing down" the border would collapse Texas' economy, both because of needed imports and the fact that Mexico is a huge export market. That's Border Economics 101.

If it were as easy as you imply to "stop the flow of drugs coming across the border," they'd have done it already.

DeathBreath said...

The same simpletons who fail to profit from experience continue to fill the prisons. There is a reason the count room uses a count board. It is tangible. You can touch and see the assigned tags.

I believe that every judge should be 100% accountable for those they incarcerate. Judges should be consulted each & every time there is overcrowding, whining offenders wanting cell moves or when to move someone to punitive segregation. The dots are not being connected. It seems as though many are not cooperating with the system. No, District Attorneys & county jails want to send them to prison to avoid cost overruns.

Let's be sure to continue the same things that led to overcrowding. Sentence them and see if there is enough room. If there is not, you should get the adoption papers ready.

Anonymous said...

LEO’s are punks. It’s easier to bully the users than to go after the people they are afraid of. They see what happens to the LEO’s on the border who try to stop drug traffic. The Feds under the Husain administration obviously don’t want to do anything on the border. How else can our enemies sneak into this country. Best thing a freedom loving citizen can do if they want to enjoy a toke is to be smart about it and not get caught. If they’re on paper keep a steady supply of Stinger around for those costly yet unreliable drug test and say as little as possible to those pesky PO’s. In Texas, it also helps to be White.

muebles girona said...

So, I don't really believe it may have success.