Sunday, November 19, 2006

Houston Judge to Rick Perry: Cut drug sentences to let felony courts focus on violent crime

It's not quite "Man Bites Dog," but a Republican state district judge in Houston this week called for Governor Perry and the Texas Legislature to reduce drug sentences. Reported Bill Murphy in the Houston Chronicle ("Judge calls for easing of drug penalty," Nov. 19):
State District Judge Michael McSpadden once believed that long sentences would deter drug sales and drug use.

But after more than two decades hearing felony cases in Harris County, the former prosecutor is calling on the governor and Legislature to reduce sentences for low-level drug possession.

"These minor offenses are now overwhelming every felony docket, and the courts necessarily spend less time on the more important, violent crimes," he recently wrote to Gov. Rick Perry.

Nearly twice as many defendants in Harris County were sent to state jails last year for possessing less than 1 gram of a drug than in Dallas, Tarrant and Bexar counties combined.

McSpadden recommended making delivering or possessing a small amount of drugs a Class A misdemeanor carrying no more than a year in county jail.

Gov. Rick Perry is aware that bills may be submitted in the upcoming legislative session that call for reducing penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs or drug residue, said Kathy Walt, the governor's spokeswoman.

"He is willing to look at anything that the Legislature presents him, and he wants to hear the debate in the Legislature about the pros and cons of the issue," she said.

The judge said the Houston Police Department and District Attorney's Office are clogging court dockets and causing crowding in the county jail and state jails by bringing so many drug-possession cases against those found with pipe residue or a sugar packet's worth of cocaine.

Interestingly, McSpadden's not alone on the right. His position is also supported by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank best known for supporting school vouchers and lower taxes.

I would have expected Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal to come out more strongly on the proposal, but he basically told the Chronicle his office would enforce the laws however they were written. That said, IMO he's being a bit disingenuous, and it's likely he would oppose the change behind the scenes. Rosenthal's office presently charges people with felonies even when there is only residue on a crack pipe, for example - a circumstance that in other jurisdictions would only warrant a misdemeanor charge. McSpadden thinks Harris County prosecutors are overcharging in these cases based on a technicality. Reported Murphy:

Those caught with crack pipes should be charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, a Class A C misdemeanor — not drug possession, McSpadden said. People convicted of carrying crack pipes can be fined $500 and put on probation.

Possession of less than 1 gram of a drug is a felony that often lands people in state jail for six months to two years.

I'll bet a lot of other district judges, who see these cases every day, agree with McSpadden's analysis; I hope they follow his example and speak up. Judge McSpadden doesn't support decriminalizing drugs, just rationalizing the punishment to fit the crime. He took the same stance in each of the last two legislative sessions, and since then the problems he describes have only worsened.

UPDATE: More from attorney Tom Kirkendall at Houston's Clear Thinkers, who calls McSpadden "one of the formerly toughest sentencing judges in the Harris County District Courts" and concludes that "harsh sentences meted out in Texas and much of the rest of the US over minor drug offenses and the like is a national disgrace."


High Power Rocketry said...

: )

Catonya said...

Another little technicality in Texas drug law allows for the substance and whatever it's contained in to be weighed together.

In my case it jumped the weight from .82 gram to 2.8 grams. Which in turn changed the degree of felony I was charged with.

AustinDefense said...

You correctly quote the Chronicle article, but it misstates the law, and I’m guessing, misquotes the district court judge, who probably knows that possession of drug paraphernalia is a class C misdemeanor, not an A misdemeanor. Makes the difference between an extra $3500 in fines, and up to a year in jail :)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good catch, Austindefense. I think what the judge is calling for is really two things: 1) reducing less than a gram cases to a Class A misdemeanor, and 2) ceasing the Harris County DA's policy of charging unusable trace amounts of drug on paraphernalia as "possession," which other big counties don't do. Best,

Anonymous said...

A very interesting change in view on War on Drugs by the Honorable Michael McSpadden. Several years ago there was a judge in the 339th District Court in Harris County, Norman Lanford, who advocated lowering the penalties for trace drug cases and even sentenced many such offenders to lesser sentences. Judge Lanford was publically attacked and vigorously opposed by the Harris County District Attorney's Office, as well as fellow members of the judiciary. Subsequently, Judge Lanford was defeated at the polls by a member of the DA's office who ran for judge. Judge Lanford's defeat was in part because of the "soft on drug offenders" position Judge Lanford was painted as having because of his trace amount position. Perhaps Judge Lanford was a man before his time.
Probably not, it is just amazing how things seldom change; it is more likely that other's including Judge McSpadden now have the ability to finally open their eyes and see what is really happening.

Anonymous said...

Could the county jails cope with holding offenders for the periods being suggested? Arent they also full to overflowing as well?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

You're right, Sunray, not as it stands. They easily could do it, though, if the Lege simultaneously restructured low-level pot possession to a C misdemeanor, see here. They could clear out a lot more space in the jails by rationalizing laws about driving with a suspended license.

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