Thursday, June 12, 2014

Correa: Time to adjust Texas drug laws

Ana Correa at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition had an essay this week in the Texas Tribune's "TribTalk" section titled, "It's time to reform Texas' drug laws." In particular, she argues for lowering penalties for possessing user-level amounts of marijuana (to a Class C misdemeanor) and less-than-a-gram of harder drugs (to a Class A misdemeanor) to save incarceration costs and focus more on treatment for people whose main crime is their addiction. The article closes:
For drugs other than marijuana, possession of less than a gram — the equivalent of less than a sugar packet — is a state jail felony in Texas. This saddles convicted men and women with a lifelong felony record, limiting their access to housing, employment and other assistance. Texas could reduce the charge to a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in a local county jail. Such a change would relieve crowded felony court dockets and save Texas millions in state prison spending, a percentage of which could be reinvested in county programs to address substance abuse.

Most individuals charged with felony possession crimes are not high-end drug dealers but petty users, often with substance abuse problems, whose behavior won’t be altered by prison time. Michael McSpadden, a Republican and longtime district court judge in Harris County, believes these penalties should be reduced. McSpadden and 11 fellow Harris County judges last year sent a letter to the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee saying that “the public has realized that draconian punishment of minor drug offenses as state jail felonies is not working, and as judges, we hear countless complaints from trial juries and grand juries who do not believe these cases should be tried as felonies.”

Texas’ punitive drug laws are out of sync with the public’s views and are costing state and local governments more than could possibly be justified by any public safety-based cost-benefit analysis. Adjusting these penalties would reduce the burden on taxpayers and let police and courts focus on more serious crime, better protecting everyone.


Anonymous said...

How does incarceration in the county jail upwards to 1 year save taxpayer money?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Several ways. 1) it costs more to lock them up for longer than that in state prisons. 2) They can earn good time in jail that shortens the time incarcerated. And 3) most misdemeanor drug charges end in probation and don't involve incarceration, even if it's theoretically possible.

Anonymous said...

Thank you 9:19...I was just wondering how it would be a good thing for the taxpayers for the legislature to force the responsibility for all of these drug offenders back onto the counties. Just another unfunded mandate if you ask me. Oh, but what the hell. It's not like possession or use of less than a sugar packet of methamphetamine is any kind of big deal or has any sort of far reaching negative societal consequences! Just another "victimless" crime right, GFB?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

So tell me, 10:09, who is the "victim" in a drug possession case?

Unknown said...

@ Anonymous... Simply because the maximum sentence is 1 year does NOT mean people are sentenced to 1 year. In fact, VERY FEW misdemeanants ever see the jail at all after arrest.

Also, the state could fund treatment programs on a local basis through local probation departments.

As an attorney, few things have caused me more chagrin than to see a drug user who has hurt NO ONE be sentenced to prison multiple times because he keeps using small amounts of drugs. To see the actual consequences of the state drug policies is to see the creation of family and societal tragedies on a massive scale.

One client stands out, in particular. For less .5 of a gram of cocaine, he was sentenced to 2 years in prison, as he was ineligible for probation, due to a similar felony conviction, and his family went from being supported by him to being supported by the state. His wife and children effectively became wards of the state. Not only was he a victim of the "War on Drugs", his wife and children became collateral damage casualties.

Anonymous said...

To 9:19

Didn't think county jails were funding on a per head per day basis? If a county jail has 100 beds the jail is funded to operate 100 beds regardless of whether it has a 50% occupancy rate or a 100% occupancy rate for the year?
The savings would come from using empty beds that are technically already being paid but not used at the county level.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Actually, 12:14, they do have to staff the extra wings, feed them, provide medical care, etc., so there are costs. Even so, if they simultaneously reduced pot less than 2oz to a Class C, that'd more than free up enough extra jail space for the counties.

Anonymous said...

You are correct that they don't have to staff the extra wings and may reduce what is spent on meals. However, that does not = a budget reduction, closed wing and taxpayer savings.

Anonymous said...

Actually, those Harris county judges have not only sent letters to legislators but have also traveled to Austin and personally requested a change in the laws.

Unbeknown to the judges however was the fact that police union representatives along with their paid lobbyists were also meeting with legislators demanding no such change in the drug laws.

The police unions then attacked and defeated Harris County DA Pat Lykos in the following election because her office was refusing to file felony charges in most cases involving small amounts of drugs including crack pipe residue.

And now we're hearing that this same police union is defending its members for not investigating serious crimes, and the police chief is begging for another 1500 cops:

DEWEY said...

I highly recommend that everyone read TO END THE WAR ON DRUGS by Dean Becker. Highly informative. DISCLAIMER: I know Dean and was his sound engineer of THE PRISON SHOW on radio station KPFT when he firs started.

The Homeless Cowboy said...

Hello all, I can speak to the state of affairs in Harris county as I was arrested there 3 times for felony possession when I was using Crack. I was arrested those 3 times with no drugs on me, I did however have a pipe with residue, in Harris County id the chemical turns blue from the residue it is a felony case.When you go to court a lawyer tells you he can get you a light county sentence if you plead guilty right now. They will give you 30 days the first time, next time 60 then 90 and after several arrests they will send you to State Jail. COPVIDS, I agree with everything you said except they will give you jail time, but it is inconsequential. Harris county Sherifs dept and hpd are vicious in their pursuit of this, they use it to get the homeless off the streets, My wife and I ened up homeless and started using crack, we lived under the bridge at 1960 and I 45 for 2 years, we were on a first name basis with the sherrifs deputies because they were there so much, they would write you 4 or 5 tickets every time they saw you and when the went alias they would take you to jail and you serve 1 day and all the tickets go away what a collossal waste of taxpayer money. Vicious circle, it will never end as long as there are drugs and people to use them

Anonymous said...

Many people caught with what may be considered a petty amount of drugs actually are in possession of far more substances if you were to go to their house. In other words, drug dealers ride around town with Misdemeanor or State Jail Felony amounts of drugs, but at their house they are engaging in 1st degree felony behavior. Not all, but many.

Just because someone is arrested for a Misdemeanor or State Jail Felony doesn't mean the real behavior isn't at a 1st Degree Level, its just that they haven't been caught yet. Most won't get caught because the resources law enforcement has don't come anywhere near what is needed to make a difference, not to mention the differing value systems of all the players when it comes to deputies police officers, prosecutors, judges, etc.

Who is the victim in a drug possession case? Well, if all you are looking at is the fact that the person was in possession, I guess nobody; but the truth is there are many victims. Every time some methamphetamine dealer turns a young child on to methamphetamine, that young child immediately becomes the victim, and so does their family. Losing sight of that fact harms everyone and it is never really spoken of. Instead, what is spoken about is the offense. The offense itself is only part of the puzzle.

Where we always get it wrong is by only looking at the offense, and not what is really going on with the person. Often, what is really going on is the person is a serious drug dealer who just has a little bit of drugs on their person; or they are seriously addicted and in need of long term treatment but because they were caught with a misdemeanor amount,they must not be all that bad, lets give them a break, lets not log the system up with them, blah, blah,blah.

In the Courtroom, it is never about what is best for the public's safety, it is always about whether or not it is a good case and how well the attorneys know each other. The defendant and the victim are left out of the equation every day in a courtroom. Pick any Courtroom, go sit and watch, pay attention, and what you will find is it is about the relationships between the lawyers that matters more than anything else. If you think is any other way, you are fooling yourself.

A drug possession case can take forever to go to trial because we are all innocent until proven guilty. Most drug offenders caught with a felony amount of drugs are not indicted within 90 days. The State takes way too long (as long as 12 months) to have a confirmation returned from DPS and by then the case is so old that the District Attorney's Office has moved on to something else. Get us to the point where it can be proved that it really was marijuana or cocaine or methamphetamine or heroin or whatever substance in a reasonable time period, then a difference might be able to be made. Releasing people on PR Bonds and waiting a year to Indict is ridiculous.

Also, not until the Sheriff's and Police Chiefs of the world buy into ideas like those posed by the TCJC nothing will anything matter. Again, varying value systems and many of them polarizing at best.

Legislators aren't on the street with the police, they aren't on the line with the probation and parole personnel, they haven't got a clue.

Saving money for the prions will only cause increased costs for the counties. It is that simple.

Possession of drugs is not a victimless crime.

Anonymous said...

TO 1:42

Well said and agree on most of what you are saying. However, blaming DPS for prosecutor delays may apply a percentage of the time. Would agree that a large percentage of the time the delays are due to prosecutors playing grab-ass with the plea bargaining process?
You make a good point about the "differing values" in the system. But at what point did every entity in the system become an island to themselves?

Anonymous said...

A sad irony about moving possession of harder drugs to a misdemeanor is that FEWER people will get treatment. A hard core drug user can't get clean and sober in a miracle 30 day program. Many of them need long term treatment. When faced with long term treatment or a few months in county jail, they will choose jail every time. With a felony, they are more likely to opt for treatment.

Anonymous said...

Thats so true i was in saftp and some people need long term help .. it wasn't a waste for me ,i got a ged something i wouldn't have time for while working in the real world ..On the real tho people need help when they smoke crack or meth shoot heroin ..or a raging alcoholic. Dont change the felony, lower the pot they dont need that . I know i said i got my ged but i got this new phone. So forgive the mistake.

Anonymous said...

The argument is not whether drugs are good or bad. Most would agree they are bad. The issue is, how do we deal with the problem. What we have done in the past hasn't worked. The War on Drugs has been a huge failure. Its time to give up on that and try something else. I think police have more resources than they need now. Thanks to this War on Drugs, we've forfeited a lot of our civil liberties. Officers drool at the prospect of searching cars on traffic stops hoping to find some drugs. If we add more officers and increase their resources we will only see more infringment on civil liberties with no real impact on the problem of illegal drugs. This will worsen the problem of the us vs them mentality that is beginning to cause problems between the citizenry and law enforcement. This problem will never be solved through law enforcement - unless we completely become a totalitarian state - which could happen if we continue on our current track. Its time to take a step back and consider other ways to deal with the problem.

Additionally, this War on Drugs has lead to the loss of innocent lives. Yes, use of illegal drugs leads to death, child neglect, and other very bad problems. But, the War on Drugs is a solution that isn't working and is also costing innocent lives.

Anonymous said...

2:03 wrote: "A sad irony about moving possession of harder drugs to a misdemeanor is that FEWER people will get treatment"

Judges can order mandatory therapy with jail for noncompliance as a probation condition on a Class A, of course.

Anonymous said...

Correa is right. Possession should be a class A misdeamenor. The state should kick in grants from money saved by closing state jails to fund more treatment programs and increase mental health funding. Why are so many people self-medicating?

Long term incarceration is not the answer for drug treatment. Funding better local treatment programs is the solution. This can be achieved through better funding and issuing grants to local and regional providers of drug treatment services.