Friday, January 16, 2009

Houston judges from both parties say reduce drug possession penalties

Here's an astonishing development: Sixteen of 22 Harris County felony court judges, including seven Democrats and nine Republicans, say they favor reduction of low-level drug possession in Texas from a state jail felony to a Class A misdemeanor ("Judge request to decriminalize (sic) drug use gets support," Houston Chronicle, Jan. 16):

State District Judge Michael McSpadden on Wednesday sent a letter to the state’s top officials and Houston’s senators and representatives asking for a change in what he called “draconian” laws.

During the last session, McSpadden stood alone when he asked that charges for possession of a controlled substance of less than 1 gram be reduced from a state jail felony to a misdemeanor. Two years later, judges from both major political parties are joining the Republican who has been on the bench for more than 20 years.

“Sixteen of us feel that it’s just unfair to be convicted for a residue amount and be labeled a felon, which changes your whole life,” McSpadden said. “We’re not talking about legalizing it; we’re talking about making it a misdemeanor.”

Here's the list of judges supporting the change:

Judges who signed on with McSpadden include fellow Republicans Debbie Mantooth Stricklin, Jeannine Barr, Vanessa Velasquez, Denise Collins, Marc Carter, Belinda Hill, Joan Campbell and Jim Wallace.

Democrats supporting the initiative, who were all elected in November, include Ruben Guerrero, Shawna Reagin, Kevin Fine, David Mendoza, Randy Roll, Hazel Jones and Maria Jackson.

This seems like almost a watershed moment; Judge McSpadden has been on this lonely quest for years and deserves a lot of credit for convincing his fellow judges to put their reputations on the line with such a request:

In his letter, McSpadden suggested reducing the charge and mandating drug treatment. He also recommended funding misdemeanor drug courts.

McSpadden said 25 percent to 30 percent of Harris County’s 22 criminal district court dockets are felony charges for less than 1 gram of a controlled substance.

The change, McSpadden argues, would lower dockets and create uniform enforcement across the state. He noted that Dallas County police and prosecutors place a lower priority on these offenses, leading to disparate treatment between counties.

McSpadden said his concerns come from fielding complaints about the system from juries and residents.

“The ‘War on Drugs’ isn’t working, and we as judges realize it,” McSpadden said. “And the public realizes it.”

New Harris DA Pat Lykos offered mostly pragmatic objections to the idea, which, while less than supportive, contrasted starkly to the lock-em-up priorities of her predecessor. Houston Rep. Harold Dutton has filed HB 287 that would enact the change in the law the judges are requesting.

Via Defending People.


Anonymous said...

Do any of these judges use "jail therapy" for their probationers who cant get a job, or can't pay their fines?

Anonymous said...

Why just for a "residue amount"? I mean, obviously, the person used the drug and that's why there is only a small amount left (residue). I understand that perhaps they think that anything more than a gram might mean selling, but that is untrue--people can use very large amounts of a drug for themselves only, with tolerance buidlup and whatnot. Why not just make possesion a misdemeanor, period unless there are clear indications of selling (i.e., 20 bricks of heroin, packaging equipment such as scales and bags, etc). Why does someone who happens to have already used most of the drug before being caught with it deserve to have their life unruffled by a felony, while someone who gets caught a few minutes earlier does not?

Kelly O'Neil said...

I agree that possession of any amount should be a misdemeanor, unless evidence of intent to distribute is found. It is riduculous that so many human and monetary recourses are spent in the war on drugs. Kudos to those judges for trying to improve the problem.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful website!!!
I think that this ia a great idea for all of the youngster who have not found themselves. I know that drugs are not legal, however it is, and still is many people in office that smoke weed. Many of them use cocaine.
It is a disgrace that some counties in Texas won't even arrest simple cases as these. Harris County is not one of them.
Many cops have many evil ways and go out of their way to make as many Blacks,Mexicans,Indians, and vietamise suffer. This also go for other cops that are other races as well. Look at of the Tax Payers money that is wated on gas to transport thesenpeople to jail. Look at all of the money that is wasted by the court system.
You have to have Medical Insurance
for a good drug treatment program.
Some programs you have a long waiting list.

Unknown said...

Please e-mail your representatives and encourage them to support this bill. It is about time that there are some positive changes to deal with the real issues that affect not only our tax dollars but to treat an abuser of drugs or alcohol as more than a criminal.

Addiction is something that must be treated - incarceration does not treat the illness.

Please, please help get this bill passed by encouraging our representatives to endorse it!!

Kudos for Judge McSpadden for hanging in there and fighting for such an important issue!!