Thursday, June 30, 2011

Unfunded mandates and life sentences for drug dealers

In Corpus Christi, Judge Tom Greenwall sentenced a 23-year old to life in prison over a drug dealing charge, citing his criminal history including several burglaries and a separate drug case, as well as a federal firearms conviction in March. Sentences like this make me wonder, if we now dole out "life" sentences for drug charges doesn't that a) demean the gravity of the punishment and b) work against the state's long-term economic interest?

Even if life in this instance means eligible for parole in 30-40 years, that's still a decision to remove this fellow from society for the entirety of his productive life over nonviolent offenses committed in his youth. So the state pays his full freight whereas on the outside world his economic activity, including property and sales taxes, would contribute to state coffers.

Nobody's saying it wasn't time for this kid to go take a long, state-sponsored timeout. But a "life" sentence is done for the public relations benefit, not because keeping him in a minimum of 30-40 years makes us safer than 20. (The parole board still must evaluate him for release, in either case.) Serving a 15 year sentence would begin to age him out of the prime, youthful crime committing demographic, after which, over time, the likelihood of new offenses declines.

Grits has argued for ratcheting down drug sentences one notch across the board in large part because of the effect on the state budget by reducing incarceration for low-level drug offenders. But while cost savings for offenders on the low end most affect the short-term budget, the long-term budget savings would be even more important, reducing judges and juries discretion to issue "send a message" sentences on nonviolent offenses. Just as grades lose their meaning with grade inflation, punishment gradients lose their meaning when a petty 23-year old drug dealer and a murderer get the same one.

We hear lots of commotion about "unfunded mandates" from the state to local governments, which I agree can be a serious problem. But far less often acknowledged is that, in the criminal justice system, arguably the biggest, most important unfunded mandate runs in the other direction: TDCJ's budget is mostly spent on fulfilling imprisonment obligations dictated by local sentences, whether from plea bargains or set by judges or juries. They can't control those sentence lengths or in the case of life sentences, even consider parole before decades have passed. As he ages, this offeder's health care expenses will grow; costs after he's 55 will be triple that when he's young.

Of course the Legislature owns most of the blame. They pass these draconian sentences, but the Legislative Budget Board does not require them to include their cost in the budget. So local prosecutors, judges and juries aggressively use those sentencing options, the prison budget predictably bloats, then when TDCJ is forced to parole some violent offender (to make room for this guy), they're criticized for not engaging in "Truth in Sentencing." But the reason there's no truth in sentencing is there's no truth in sentencing budgets. The Legislature passed laws with sentences more draconian than it can afford to pay for.

Constantly "enhancing" penalties without paying for it in the budget means TDCJ has no choice but to release more prisoners than ever - more than 70,000 per year, at last count. Texas now releases more prisoners every year than were even locked up at any one time during Ann Richards' tenure. Think about that: Texas releases prisoners every year in numbers so great they're greater than the whole prison system 20 years ago. We deal in volume now, and the state can't afford to process such lengthy sentences for nonviolent offenders in any significant number without either building new prisons we can't afford or stuffing more prisoners into units than they're designed for, which is what brought down federal litigation on California. That's the nature of "unfunded mandates," though; they don't give you any choice.


Anonymous said...

Since dope convictions are not 3g (aggravated) offenses, parole eligibility will occur at 15 years on a life sentence. Any good time credit earned will also apply to the 15 year minimum. If he gets 3 for 1 good time, he could be out in as little as 5 years....on a LIFE sentence. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

What's your thoughts on determinate sentencing? Judge says three years, you stay three years. Do you think this would help?

Alex S. said...

5 years on a life sentence? Give me a break! That's so far from the truth. It's statements like that that influences juries to give harsh sentences---Judges too. I had a case in front of Greenwell where he sentenced my client harshly and relied on the possibility of parole for an earlier release. "Mr. Defendant, you'll be the same age as me when you get out of prison(30 years on a life sentence for murder). When are people (judges included) going to realize that inmates don't get automatically paroled the day they become eligible? I have numerous clients who served 60% to 100% of their sentences. Granted I have also had clients who only served 20%. Anytime a client asks me how much time he will do on his sentence, I shrug my shoulders and tell them my crystal ball is on the fritz. Documented gang members will almost always serve most of their sentence.

sunray's wench said...

Anon 8.55 ~ if the inmate is not eligable for parole until 15 years served, then no amount of good time credit is going to let him out before those 15 years have passed. It may have been the case in the past, but past sentences come under previous legislation.

You are also ignoring the point Grits was making: should these life sentences be handed out to individuals who have not committed a violent offence, or even at all given the economics of incarceration. How threatened do you personally feel by having this particular inmate out on the street? No one is saying don't punish them, but exploring alternatives to spending around $30,000+ dollars on one individual out of YOUR tax dollars for the next 30 years surely can't be that offensive to you.

Hook Em Horns said...

Alex S. is right on! Parole in Texas is a crap shoot at best.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Sunray, but the only sentences that don't apply good time credit toward parole eligibility are the 3g aggravated offenses, Capital Murder LWOP, and state jail felonies. The 3g offenses require half the sentences to be served day for day without any good time credit (Alex, murder is a 3g offense). Dope cases are NOT 3g offenses. Parole eligibility on the non-3g offenses occurs after the inmate has served 1/4 of his sentence. For parole purposes, "life" is calculated at 60 years. Therefore, someone serving life on a dope case will become parole eligible on a dope case when their actual time served PLUS any accrued good time totals 15 years. That can easily amount to only 5 years actually served.

Hook Em Horns said...

Being eligible for parole and being granted parole are two completely different things. I could delve into the patent unfairness and lack of due process in the system but we already know that...don't we?

The Homeless Cowboy said...

I think he will eventually obtain a parole. The problem as I see it is that by the time he is paroled he will not be trainable for any of the trades that would afford him a decent living. or if he stays in prison he will end up sick and TDCJ will want to parole him so they aren't responsible for his long term health care. State agencies in Texas are very good at shuffling folks around.

DEWEY said...

"Being eligible for parole and being granted parole are two completely different things."
Yep. I was denied parole six times. I was released about one month before they HAD to let me go on mandatory supervision. First time offender, clean record in TDC.

Texas Maverick said...

Wanna bet he wouldn't role on his supplier and thus the "harsh" sentence? He had to get the stuff somewhere. I didn't see manufacture listed in the discussion. I'm sorry to be so cynical but lately the stories about Texas criminal justice are beginning to make me wonder if there is any common sense anywhere in Texas.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the most illogical and uninformed posts yet.

Texas maverick said...

Annoymous: "He had about $650 in his pocket and more than 100 grams of methamphetamine stashed in various places, including in an oatmeal box in the kitchen pantry, according to police reports."

He said in a written statement that the drugs were his and he usually would get one-fourth of a pound of drugs every two days or as needed.

The issue raised by Grits IMO was the excessive sentence, not parole. The news article says he admitted buying the drugs and he is accused of possession & selling, not manufacturing, which is a more serious crime under Texas laws. so, I would imagine DA's would interested in who was his supplier and would be likely to make a deal if he would identify his supplier. Thus a lighter sentence. Since he got life, I would think he didn't id his supplier and made somebody very angry and got a life sentence.

Parole in TX was discussed at length in this leg. session and got no where. The real issue is drug treatment and was this man simply hooked or was he just interested in making a lot of money. How did he get involved with the drugs in the first place.

So, if I'm illogical it's because I become frustrated with both the legislative process and the criminal justice process and wonder, "where's the common sense?" The war on drugs is a lost cause until we treat, not incarcerate a 23 yr old for life.

Hook Em Horns said...

The clients I have had who have been charged with 'dealing' are almost all, without exception, users/addicted. A common theme is that in many cases, they started dealing in order to have their own supply. I think that addressing the issue of addiction is paramount to solving some of these issues at least on a first and perhaps even a second offense.

At some point they either get the message and respond to treatment or truly deal with the consequences.

BarkGrowlBite said...

Grits, I would expect nothing less from a flaming liberal like you.

And Hook Em Horns, you're giving us the typical defense attorney crap about those poor dope dealing addicts. So, your bottom of the barrel clients are addicted. Big deal. What they are doing is to get others addicted or fuel their ongoing addiction. Get them off the street and keep them off the street. What it costs to keep them locked up is less than what their buyers are costing society.

And all this crap about non-violence. It is my experience as a former law enforcement officer that the sale of drugs is very often associated with crimes of violence that take place behind the scenes.

PirateFriedman said...

"Serving a 15 year sentence would begin to age him out of the prime"

I like this comment. I doubt many judges are going to talk this way, even if everyone knows its true.

"You are hereby sentenced to be removed from society, until your testosterone levels should decrease to an appropriate level."