State lawmakers are being asked to reclassify criminal offenses, including marijuana possession and prostitution, in an attempt to reduce the state's prison population and cut costs of appointed attorneys for poor criminal defendants.Most of the bills discussed would lower criminal penalties aimed at petty misdemeanor offenses - e.g., pot possession, prostitution, and low-level theft - from Class B to Class C misdemeanors. In part the goal is to reduce indigent defense and jail costs. "Removing jail time from the punishment spectrum relieves the state from providing legal aid to defendants who can't hire an attorney on their own."
The American Bar Association, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union say prison time should be removed as a punishment for some crimes, while others believe that an overhaul of the entire Texas Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure is long overdue.
Besides saving the cost of paying for someone to be held in prison, reclassification could save taxpayers money because county officials would not have to appoint attorneys for indigent residents charged with crimes because being held behind bars is not a punishment alternative.
What chances such legislation has heaven only knows, but even the suggestion of lowering penalties instead of raising them signals the terms of debate on crime are shifting. Certainly times are changing when a former president of the National District Attorneys Association declares, "We need to be smarter about this and not ruin good people's lives by putting them in jail." From your mouth to God's ear, sir.