Thursday, May 25, 2006

TPPF: Reduce drug sentences, strengthen probation to avert Texas' overincarceration crisis

Many people associate the Texas Public Policy Foundation with relgious right super-donor Jim Leininger and promotion of vouchers in public schools. But their fellow on criminal justice policy, Marc Levin, just produced a new white paper (pdf) with these startling drug policy recommendations to avoid building more prisons:
  • Reduce offense levels for possession of small quantities of drugs
  • Empower judges to consider factors other than quantity in sentencing
  • Expand drug courts and judge-ordered mandatory treatment and counseling as alternatives to incarceration
  • Increase availability of residential and outpatient substance abuse treatment facilities
I'll try to adumbrate the report later in more detail, but here's a taste:
The Legislature should review and revise the state’s drug statutes so that, for possession of a small amount of drugs, the minimum sentence is low enough to provide sufficient discretion for the judge to choose an alternative to a long prison term. Some 21.7 percent of Texas prisoners, which amounts to approximately 32,550 inmates, are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses. Even for drug offenses where prison time may be appropriate, excessively high upper ceilings should be lowered.
He also wants more drug courts, shorter probation terms, better treatment options, and a system of progressive sanctions for probation violators to reduce revocations.

I wish I thought that was the message being delivered when Leininger's checks were handed out - I'm sure it's not. But it's amazing to me that the terms of debate among Texas conservatives have shifted to the point where the Texas Public Policy Foundation could call for long drug sentences should be reduced.
Right now, possession of even the smallest quantity of powder is a felony offense in Texas - to reduce it at all would mean to reduce it to a misdemeanor. That would let those folks avoid employment, housing and other consequences of a felony record beyond incarceration that follow them around for life.

Bravo, Marc! That took courage, saying what needs to be said. Sometimes the hardest things to say are the obvious - e.g., that the emperor wears no clothes. I hope you don't catch a lot of backlash for it. If the state's leaders followed your advice, I think they'd be grateful later.

Then-House Corrections Committee Chairman Ray Allen, who recently retired, in 2003 proposed a prototype version of that idea in HB 2668, which would have reduced the lowest level drug offenses to a misdemeanor (see the introduced version). But back then the political process wouldn't allow it - the final bill kept the charge a felony but required treatment and probation instead of incarceration on the first offense. Levin's proposal expands upon Allen's original bill to include the idea of reducing drug sentences on the high end.

I always thought it was gutsy for a Republican committee chairman to propose such a thing. This took guts, too. Give it a read (pdf).

No comments: