Saturday, November 20, 2010

Harris judges reduce number of needlessly jailed drug probationers

Giving credit where it's due, it appears judges in Harris County (Houston) have begun changing their collective sentencing practices regarding first offense less-than-a-gram drug cases, going by their Nov. 1 jail population data reported (pdf) to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Why do I say that? Here's the backstory: In 2003, the GOP took over the Texas Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction and Speaker Tom Craddick appointed Ray Allen (since retired) to chair the House Corrections Committee. The state faced a severe budget crisis (though not as severe as today), so Allen filed HB 2668 to reduce penalties for less-than-a-gram drug cases from a state jail felony to a Class A misdemeanor, a suggestion I've advocated here on Grits more than once. The legislative process, however, is designed to force compromise. In the end, the bill kept the state-jail felony level but mandated probation for less-than-a-gram cases on the first offense, a move that diverted about 4,000 low-level offenders per year from Texas state jails.

In Harris County, though, then-District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal had opposed the legislation and his office successfully pushed for judges to exercise their discretion to require incarceration in the county jail up to six months as a condition of felony probation, which most Harris County judges began to do routinely, and to my knowledge, uniquely. This caused the jail to swell with probationers who a) previously would have been incarcerated by the state and b) could have been released. I've been grumpy about this for seven years since the bill's implementation. A lot of people worked hard to pass that legislation, and the effort to reduce prison overcrowding was never intended to increase local jail overcrowding. That was the choice of local elected officials.

In any event, whether new DA Pat Lykos has quit asking for the extra jail time as frequently or judges have smartened up and started refusing it, I cannot say, but as of Nov. 1 there were just 350 inmates in the Harris County jail who'd been convicted of state jail felonies and were serving time as a condition of probation. This time last year, Harris County had 1,181 such inmates in the jail, which means we've witnessed a 70.4% decrease in that category of prisoner in a single year. That takes a lot of needless pressure off the jail at the margins and I'm quite glad to see it. My hunch from these data is that several specific judges have changed their practices and a few holdouts account for that remaining 30%. I'd love to see judge-by-judge data to know which courts are still needlessly sending these probationers to jail and which have stopped.

Combined with the DA's decision to prosecute crack paraphernalia under the paraphernalia laws like all other large jurisdictions instead of as state jail felony drug possession - another Rosenthal-era policy which required sending pipes to overworked (and scandal-ridden) labs to document trace residue - it's easy to see why the Harris jail population has experienced a welcome, though not-yet sufficient decline in the last year. The folks who make decisions that created the overcrowding crisis have begun, ever so haltingly, to ease their foot off the collective pedal. There's still much more they can do.


Anonymous said...

Maybe so for these less than gram 1st offenses, but the jails are full of probation violators and parolees doing "jail therapy" on other crimes.
The judges are using the county jails as well as all the law enforcement officers in the state as the courts own process servers to manage their probationers. The probationers have to pay about a dozen different fines and fees for some stupid new stylish program that is supposed to make them better citizens. Don't pay, and you get a warrant issued, with a bond. The broke and unemployed get to stay in jail. The ones with cash, have to pay fro freedom.

The bondsmen donate to the judges and the judges issues warrants with bonds. It's a big money machine.

titfortat said...

The bondsmen hold zero sway over these decisions and a huge chunk of probation violations have bonds set at zero.

The stupid stylish programs comment, (I do like that part) goes back to what I have been saying over and over; allow for straight probations with the only yardstick being recidivism.

Technical violations and monetary violations directly associated with these stupid stylish programs overburdens probationers creating a negative impact on their ability to effectively function within society thus creating the exact opposite of the theoretical positive outcome.

If given a fair shot at functioning in society many more probationers will be able to complete their probations successfully and will not resort to criminal activity for survival.

This post also acknowledges a possible shift in previous policy with the new DA Pat Lykos in that her desire is to see trace amounts of narcotics prosecuted as a Class C paraphernalia offense. My understanding was that this was an expense she felt that Harris County could live without.

As I have stated before, if this is the consensus then why are we paying out the (%#@!) to have huge numbers of (presumed innocent) pretrial defendants drug tested so that they also can be placed back into custody with zero bond.

Where is the reasoning and at what cost?

I fail to see the difference; where there’s smoke there’s fire but apparently not when it costs too much.

How much does it cost to staff pre-trial employees (salaries, healthcare, and pension); how much does it cost to drug test, (must be quite a bit if the DA wants to stop prosecuting narcotics cases over money); how much does it cost to bring the matter to the attention of the court; how much does it cost to incarcerate afterwards?

Are we really trying as hard as we can to decrease the budget.

Prison Doc said...

Titfortat, maybe the budget angle is going to be our salvation in bringing about some changes (that is my hope, not my expectation). Sometimes I think, "Our parents and grandparents came through the Great Depression and it seemed to have made them pretty good people. Maybe a complete global financial meltdown is what we need again."

Robert Langham said...

Smith County could do all these things or even just a few of them and solve their jail crowding problems. Instead they put a new jail bond issue on the calendar....after being told NO three times by the citizens.

Larry said...

Smith County is just pathetic, primarily because of Tyler being the county seat. Speaking of which, the Tyler Municipal Court is due for a major scandal about now.

titfortat said...

Prison Doc,
My father is 80 years old and I couldn’t have been more proud of an ex-marine as I was when the Democrat turned Republican told the Republican solicitor that he would not be contributing to their campaign fund this year because his money was going to the Tea Party.

It may take a few more tar and feathered politicians to be run out on a rail before we get there but I wouldn’t be counting on the meltdown yet, in fact I’m going to see if I can find a Rosie the Riveter bumper sticker, if not I may start printing them myself with a slightly different twist, “kick them out, we can do it!”

My take is that smaller government will fix all.

Unknown said...

Your article about the 350 state jail felons in the Harris County Jail is inaccurate. You state: 350 inmates in the Harris County jail who'd been convicted of state jail felonies and were serving time as a condition of probation. It doesn't say that. It says there are 350 state jail felons serving county time. Which includes state jail felons sentenced under 12.44(a). That is usually with the state's consent as part of a plea bargain. So it may not be so much a function of the judges . . .