The point is being made by both sides of the political spectrum: Prisons and jails are needlessly stuffed with low-level drug offenders"With the ends of the political spectrum seemingly aligned on this issue," opined the paper's editorial board, "lawmakers need to meet them in the middle and take these reform proposals seriously." In particular, the paper joined those groups in endorsing expanded use of drug courts and community based treatment, but also backed a suggestion to lower penalties for low-level pot possession:
Just this month in Austin, the state’s muscular Texas Association of Business joined the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation in advocating for less expensive and more effective approaches than incarceration for small amounts of illicit drugs.
On the other side of the political spectrum, a new report from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition clarified how much these prison-for-possession cases are costing taxpayers: $700,000 a day, just for those sent to state lockups in 2011.
the Legislature should address penalties for the lower-level drug crimes, such as possessing an ounce or less of marijuana. That is now a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by a $2,000 fine and 180 days in jail. Under a bill by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, the offense would be reclassified as a Class C misdemeanor, which typically brings no jail time and a fine of up to $500. Repeat offenders would be subject to Class B penalties.The furthest Rep. Dutton ever got with this bill was during the 79th Texas Legislature in 2005, when similar legislation passed unanimously out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, then led by Chairman Terry Keel, a former Republican Sheriff from Travis County. Grits at the time worked with ACLU of Texas and remembers the vote well. Surprisingly, the usual tuff-on-crime suspects backed off when it appeared the legislation had bipartisan momentum, with nobody testifying in opposition at the committee hearing. The bill stalled, though, in the Calendars committee, we were told at the time because then-Speaker Tom Craddick wanted to "protect the members" from having to vote on it in what was only the second session Republicans had controlled the Texas House since Reconstruction. Counting heads, though, advocates working at the time for the bill's passage were pretty sure we had the votes, perhaps even headed into the triple digits. (Never getting a chance to test the waters on the House floor on that bill was one of several major disappointments that session.)
This bill is the way Texas drug laws should be headed. For one, it makes financial sense, since jail time soaks up tax dollars and courts are obligated to furnish an attorney to indigent defendants charged with Class B misdemeanors.
In 2007, lawmakers tried to cut the number of drug-possession and other nonviolent defendants in county jails by dropping the requirement that they be arrested and held for trial. But many cities and counties have not exercised the option to write summonses for low-level drug suspects and continue to book them into jails. Once there, many poor young people won’t make bail and are often headed to a life in the criminal justice system.
Given that experience, I've believed for while that, if given the chance, Texas' Republican majority, at least in the House, would likely support lowering the penalty categories for low-level pot possession. There are so many new members who've arrived since then that Grits doesn't have as good a sense of what a final head count might look like. (State Rep. Debbie Riddle is the only member remaining from that unanimous committee vote.) But with the Texas Association of Business and the Texas Public Policy Foundation providing conservative ideological cover and a different Speaker in power, the 83rd Texas Legislature would be an excellent time to find out.