Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The shortest distance to cutting 5% at TDCJ: Reduce drug penalties

A recent 35-year jury sentence for an East Texas pot dealer over a quarter-pound of weed was designed to "send a message," in the prosecutorial parlance. But the real message it sends should be to budget writers at the Texas Legislature: Drug penalties that high are not only unjust but unsustainably expensive. The Tyler case is a poster child for why it's time to ratchet them down.

A bipartisan group of 16 criminal district judges from Harris County has been advocating to reduce penalties in less-than-a-gram state-jail felony cases, but this example shows how penalties are too high across the board. Like most Texas drug defendants, this fellow was no kingpin, but Texas taxpayers will foot the bill for his room, board and healthcare for many years to come.

If legislators want to sustainably cut 5% from TDCJ's budget, among the quickest ways would be to ratchet drug penalties down one notch across the board, maxxing out at a second degree felony instead of first and making less than a gram possession a Class A misdemeanor. Simultaneously, they should invest a portion of the savings in stronger probation and reentry programs.

Besides just being fair and the right thing to do, the move would immediately reduce pressure on the prison system, allowing the state to save money by closing prison units or eliminating private prison contracts. Other states are considering similar measures in light of the budget crunch; most recently Colorado saw legislation filed along these lines.

The biggest complaint would come from overcrowded county jails don't want to deal with offenders currently sent off to so-called "state jails" for the equivalent of fourth-degree felonies. But those extra prisoners could be more than offset by similarly ratcheting down marijuana penalties in the misdemeanor range. That would make low-level pot possession cases (less than 2 oz) a Class C misdemeanor that generates ticket revenue instead of a Class B which clogs up misdemeanor courts and runs up unnecessary indigent defense bills, generating cost savings at all levels of government. (Where are the small government conservatives when you need them?)

TDCJ cannot credibly cut 5% from its budget without policy changes in addition to tweaking appropriations. In light of counterproductive sentences like this one out of Tyler, reducing lengthy drug sentences is one of the most obvious possibilities.


JusSayin said...

Reform of the Drug Free Zone ("DFZ") enhancements would be an ideal place to start. The statute, Section 481.134 of the Texas Health and Safety Code provides an assortment of enhancments for drug offenses committed certain distances of playgrounds, schools, pools and video arcades. However, it is Section 508.145 of the Texas Government Code that is the real hammer on DFZ. This section mandates that once a DFZ affirmative finding is made, a defendant/TDCJ inmate is not eligible for parole until the inmate's calendar time served, without consideration of good time credit, equals 5 years or the term of the sentence, whichever is less. In other words the defendant has to serve the first five years as "flat" time. No one, least of all me, is saying that DFZ does not have a place in punishment considerations. Actual sale or possession at a school SHOULD be dealt with more harshly than garden variety possession or delivery cases. As currently used and applied, however, they are an easy source for overcharging and a contributing factor in TDCJ overcrowding.

Robert Langham said...

Calling Leo Berman! Great spot to show off your limited government agenda!

Anonymous said...

Grits - I think maybe TDCJ should look at a funding mechanism like TDJC/TYC. Limit the number of people counties can send to prison or make the counties pay. Or, maybe, limit the number of years the counties get each year to assign sentences. If the counties had some responsibility for the cost of incarceration, they might rethink outrageous sentence lengths for non-violent crimes.

Hook Em Horns said...

Hey, I have an idea, lets use common sense. Lets sentence drug offenders to TREATMENT PROGRAMS to help them break the cycle of dope addiction. Let's save prison space for violent offenders who pose a threat to our way of living.

Oh wait, this is Texas. Never work.

sunray's wench said...

I think a fundamental point is being missed here. While I agree that such long sentences are ridiculous for possession of small amounts of any drug, that is not the whole of the problem.

For many of those caught with illegal drugs, that is not the only extent of their criminal behaviour. Illegal drugs require money to purchase them. Most drug users go through the classic stages of first trying to work to cover their habit, then selling off their possessions, and finally stealing from others to fund their vice.

These "low level" users are often the ones who break into cars and homes to steal your property. Just because they are not caught in the act, does not mean they do not do it. Some go armed with weapons. So your "non-violent" drug user can easily turn into a violent offender when they are caught later on - particularly if they serve a short sentence with no rehab and are released back onto the streets with no home or support in the community available.

Shorter sentences MUST be accompanied by cognitive behaviour therapy and rehab treatment, as well as better community support upon release. If you ONLY give out shorter sentences, you are simply building up a bigger problem to deal with later.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sunray, that's why I suggested "they should invest a portion of the savings in stronger probation and reentry programs."

Anonymous said...

Scott......Just some more questions on the Tyler sentence that maybe some investigative reporter will check into. And no, I don't mean you but rather the writer who initially wrote the story.

Was this man employed? If not, what visbile means of support did he have?

When was the last time he filed an income tax report?

Was this man drawing welfare benefits from the government?

Anonymous said...

"(Where are the small government conservatives when you need them?)

TDCJ cannot credibly cut 5% from its budget without policy changes in addition to tweaking appropriations."

I'm right here with you. You and I have a difference of opinion and that makes for a healthy debate.

I have opined here on several occasions when you talk budget cuts you don't cut a little from this line and that line. You want to make serious budget cuts; cut jobs. No, I don't mean prison guards. I mean at all levels of TDCJ management.

One other note...You are correct about misdemeanor field citations. I plan to make this a campaign issue before the voters in the upcoming sheriff elections in 2012.

By the way, you might be interested to know that a previous agency I worked for was doing MFR's before it was cool or available to do so. Just one of many avenues the sheriff used to keep his jail population under control.

Anonymous said...

I thought this was interesting: It comes from “Busted in Austin!” A local weekly mugshot newspaper sold here in ATX.

Ask the Chief (Acevedo): Q: “Why are Austin Police Officers still arresting citizens for Possession of Marijuana less than 4 .oz’s if the officers have the discretion and have had this discretion over a year to merely issue a citation?”

Acevedo: In cases where we are, it’s likely one of the following reasons:

1. violation occurred in county outside of Travis (note: the city of Austin annexed a portion of Williamson County);

2. Suspect resides in county other than Travis;

3. Suspect did not have valid identification;

4. Suspect was booked on warrants or other charges and the marijuana is but one of several charges.

So I understand answers 3 and 4. However, he’s pointing to Williamson County in answers one and two. What was interesting was #2, because I guess what he’s saying is your likely to do your probation in Williamson County since you live there.

Williamson County is no better than Smith County when it comes to backwards ass thinking.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

6:57, what does any of that have to do with the price of tea in China?

Will it cost less for TDCJ to house him or pay his health care bills if he had no job? Will crimes committed by a violent offender released to make room for him harm fewer people depending on his employment status? Or are you suggesting it's generally okay to incarcerate poor people and that's justification in and of itself?

Whether or not the guy was on welfare before is irrelevant. From now on the nanny state will pay 100% of his freight, including all his health costs, probably until he dies.

The more important question is: Is it worth it?

Anonymous said...

"Whether or not the guy was on welfare before is irrelevant."

That's funny......Suppose he is and he's not reporting his drug income, much less can pass a pee test. Course I suppose that's ok with you too?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

4:34, I didn't say it was okay, I said it's irrelevant. What effect do you think those things should have on criminal sentencing, and why? Should someone on welfare receive a harsher sentence? What in the world do your comments have to do with anything?

Scott Stevens said...

It is curious to me to see your comments about people unable to pay for surcharges and the difficulties they have (leaving aside the ripple-effect economic consequences) only to see you suggest to have more people paying fines on class c misdemeanors.

I realize that some people sentenced to prison get fines, but I tend to think (without facts to back it up, I admit) that fines and prison sentences are not frequently associated, and less frequently collected.

I have to wonder whether the solution is legalization of certain drugs as opposed to changing to fining their possession or use.

We already have a law that makes it a crime to drive while intoxicated no matter the substance that is the source of the intoxication, so wouldn't legalization be a better solution(partially just being the devil's advocate here, but curious nonetheless).

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Scott, a couple of things:

First, the surcharge is after people have already paid their fines, so the criticism is of double dipping with a civil fee that defendants are never told about. I'm not against fines as punishments per se.

Second, while it's fine to have theoretical discussions about drug legalization, on this blog I try to focus on politics and policy in the real world, not as one might fantasize the world SHOULD be.

I'm suggesting a solution to a specific, immediate budget crisis, not describing how the world would be run if I were suddenly elevated to Philosopher-King.

Hook Em Horns said...

JusSayin said...

As currently used and applied, however, they are an easy source for overcharging and a contributing factor in TDCJ overcrowding.

3/10/2010 01:23:00 PM
Texas politicians never see an opportunity to over-charge or run overcrowded prisons as anything other than being "tough on crime" and the majority of voters in this state just swallow it, hook, line and sinker.

davidsnaustin said...

Make the counties pay for non-violent drug offenders they send to TDC. The Legislature has enacted several laws (of which many counties and even the TDC ignore) that would decrease the $$$ Texas spends on the most expensive of punishment - the PRISON system! It's a really BAD investment. Somehow the counties need to be coerced into utilizing tools - what better way than to make them pay for any non-violent, non-gang related, non-organized crime citizen the want to send into the TDC system. I can guarantee that very quickly the TDC incarceration rate would come down and treatment rates would go up.