Sunday, November 12, 2006

Honky Tonkin' Fool: Why waste jail space on superstar Supernaw, or 49,000 other Texans like him?

Why are Texas county jails overcrowded? I've addressed this question before, particularly what counties can do, but one big reason is that Texas puts people like Doug Supernaw in jail for petty, nonviolent misdemeanors.

Yes, that Doug Supernaw. The Bryan-born Texas music star responsible for "Reno" and other big-league hits. (Regular readers know I like both kinds of music: country and western.) Reported the Houston Chronicle: "Country star Doug Supernaw arrested in Humble marijuana case," Nov. 11):
Humble police reported confiscating a "roach clip with a small amount of marijuana" from Supernaw. Two off-duty officers and a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper had alerted police after seeing the singer smoking the illegal weed at the club, said Humble Sgt. Greg Sammon.
A "roach clip with a small amount of marijuana"? La hierba mala, indeed! I know I feel safer , don't you? (/sarcasm) There are hundreds such stories across the state every day and most people never hear or think of them until it happens to somebody they know ... or to somebody like Doug Supernaw. Almost 50,000 Texans are arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession each year.

Meanwhile, Harris County's jail is the most overcrowded in Texas. Hundreds of inmates have been sleeping on the floor there for more than a year. Arresting and jailing low-level nonviolent offenders like Supernaw, then requiring them to post bond, for heaven's sake, is a big reason why. Supernaw can bail himself out, but not everybody can. That's one reason the chief jail administrator in San Antonio recently wrote,
Over the past two years I have suggested the police quit arresting non-violent misdemeanants, file the cases at large and summons the defendant to court.
Supernaw's is exactly the type of case he was talking about. You tell me: Who was made safer by arresting Supernaw and taking him in? Cui bono? Who benefits?

It took a state trooper, two off-duty officers, at least one Humble police officer and sheriff's deputies at the jail time they could have spent performing other public safety functions. Reported the Chronicle, "Supernaw told investigators that he had been waiting at the club for a drummer that he 'was thinking about using for a gig,'" so the situation cost the drummer a possible job. Fortunately for the star, Supernaw's lawyer's fees can be earned in one night singing for drunks in a honky tonk two-stepping on a hardwood floor. But if he were indigent, the state would have to hire him a lawyer (because a Class B misdemeanor carries with it potential jail time). The bail bondsman benefitted, a little, I suppose.

But was Humble, Texas made safer for his arrest? I don't see how. For somebody like Supernaw, this minor charge was just an inconvenience. But in some cases arrests for pot might actually harm public safety. The letter I mentioned from the Bexar County jail administrator describes how, for a person of few means, this kind of low-level charge can wreak havoc, causing their life to spiral out of control in ways that harm safety and bleed taxpayers.

During the 79th Texas Legislature in 2005, a bill unanimously passed out of the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence committee (HB 254) that would have reduced the lowest level pot possession charges (not dealing, just mere possession, like with Supernaw) from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor. The bipartisan vote included conservative stalwarts Debbie Riddle and Mary Denny and then-Chairman Terry Keel, who was then contemplating an unsuccessful statewide race for the Court of Criminal Appeals. Three Democrats joined them on the committee to make the vote 6-0.

Why? Pure pragmatism. It would take nearly 50,000 nonviolent offenders OUT of the county jail system, would require counties to hire thousands fewer attorneys for them, and would actually GENERATE revenue because a Class C misdemeanor is paid as a fine, like a traffic ticket, while confining someone in the county jail for a Class B misdemeanor actually costs taxpayers' money.

As a bonus, in Columbia, Missouri when they made a similar change, enforcement actually increased. That's because officers weren't arresting people for low level offenses when they had other things to do or knew the jail was full, but were always willing to write somebody a ticket. At the end of the day it took less time, saved taxpayers money, and boosted enforcement; that's not being soft, that's just making the punishment fit the crime, recognizing that there are limits on society's willingness to pay for overcriminalization.

Governor Perry's veto of stronger probation affected overcrowding at county jails as well as prisons, so as the 80th session approaches Texas finds itself at a pivotal point. We can build more prisons and jails ad infinitum, or we can start to reprioritize spending to focus on more serious offenders.

The 79th Texas Legislature ended with the House Calendars committee never scheduling HB 254 for a floor vote. But after the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee blazed the trail to restructure pot penalties, I hope the new committee chair in the 80th will follow up on that good work.

"Free Doug Supernaw!" could be the battle cry. Or maybe it could be, "Just for once, please, can we be smart on crime?"

See Grits' coverage of HB 254 from 2005:


Mike Howard said...

I know I feel better. Damn that country music star and that wacky evil weed! [obvious sarcasm off]

Anonymous said...

Doug is a friend of the family and I can tell you from personal experience that he is WILD AS HELL.

So, while I agree that weed should be legal, there is a fairly good chance there might have been a little more to this story.

Anonymous said...

The fact of thematter is Doug had to borrow money from a friend to get bailed out. he tried to get a court appointed attorney because in his own words at the initail hearing he "hasn't made money playing music in 8 years". Should low level/non violent offenders be carted off to jail- probaly not. But in this case you have a man who is in the public eye (it used to be for his music) because over the last 5 or 6 years has been arrested 14 times ranging from public intoxication, to possession, DWI, resisting arrest and assault on a public servant. His problems are broguht unto himself by alcohol and drugs and he opens himself up for more prosecution each time he steps outside for a drink or a smoke.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sorry to hear about Doug's recent troubles. I still don't think anybody was made safer by arresting him, assuming there wasn't more to the story.

Indeed, my whole point was sort of that a lot of folks are pretty "wild" at some point in their lives - but the media doesn't pay attention to average joes without the celebrity status. There are 49,000 other instances each year where police time was also needlessly wasted with pot arrests.

Since you quoted from the bail hearing, I assume the last commenter was there. If there was more to the story than the pot smoking that justifies the taxpayer expense, maybe you can let us know?

Anonymous said...

okay somebody please please please get that bill on the floor so that i dont have to spend time in jail for having a few grams of marijuana in my car.
up until i actually had a cop search my car and find my bag of mary i used to think "weed needs to be legalized but im not gonna get caught with it." now i think fcuk the bastards who made and inforce this law for arresting a disabled army iraq veteran for having some weed in his car.
who cares about doug, a cop arrested me on my crutchees for doing nothing wrong at all exept posessing less than 2oz of marij. seriously, i was even parked!!