Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Schaefer: What's the point of state jail felonies?

At the Texas House Corrections Committee hearing this morning, meeting jointly with the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, Rep. Matt Schaefer asked Judge John Creuzot out of Dallas what is the point of the classification "state jail felony" if the results are poor? Why not have some sort of "Super Class A" misdemeanor that keeps people on probation for two years and just "focus on programming?," Schafer wanted to know, or else make everything a third-degree felony so people would be on supervision longer.

Judge Creuzot, who the Democratic candidate for DA in Dallas and one of the architects of the state jail system a quarter century ago, said he didn't understand what it would mean to get rid of state jail felonies unless the Legislature was going to a) mandate strong probation and b) provide funding. Programming inside state jails had been largely de-funded over the years, he noted.

Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman Joe Moody later elaborated that getting rid of state jail felonies would really mean parsing the code to decide which things should be Class A misdemeanors and which offenses would become third-degree felonies, predicting most offenses would likely go down instead of up.

Grits largely agrees with Chairman Moody, and with Rep. Schaefer's Super-Class-A suggestion. The most important change would be to shift most state-jail felonies - starting with drug offenders possessing less than a gram (Grits would recommend up to 1-4 grams as well) - to Class A misdemeanors, perhaps expanding the amount of time they could remain on probation if drug treatment is necessary, per Rep. Schaefer.

Savings from reduced incarceration could be used to pay for expanded drug treatment and other programming. Indeed, it's hard to imagine another source from which money for treatment might come.

MORE: Lauren McGaughy from the Dallas News gave highlights of the hearing on Twitter. See also tweets from the Texas Tribune's Jolie McCullough.


Anonymous said...

It is an interesting discussion in the abstract. The original concept of the State Jail felony was sound. And at one point in time, treatment programs existed within the state jails that offenders could be sent to as a condition if probation and then returned to probation upon successful completion. Because the consequence of not successfully completing the programs was another year and a half, day for day, in the state jail, the offenders at least had some incentive to participate and attempt to successfully complete treatment. Unfortunately, as has been noted, those programs have been largely defunded and terminated. Today, in most non-urban counties, the only real inpatient drug treatment option for probation departments is the Substance Abuse Felony Punishment facility(SAFPF) provided through TDCJ. Newsflash-- NO ONE wants to go to SAFPF. This is especially true of those offenders facing a state jail punishment of 2 years or less. Another newsflash--lots of drug offenders (read METH) don't want treatment. Most of these offenders know that they can plea bargain for something less than the two year state jail maximum, go do their time, and get out unsupervised so they can just start doing their drug of choice (read METH) again. Reducing the drug penalty down to that of a Class A misdemeanor so the offender is facing a year or less in the county jail sure isn't going to fix this problem. If two years flat time in the state jail doesn't encourage compliance with probation terms, a one year county jail sentence WITH good time credit sure isn't. The real dilemma and challenge here that the Lege is facing is how to make people WANT to participate in treatment. Under the current state of affairs, it doesn't seem the carrot is tasty enough or the stick punitive enough to promote change in addictive behavior. I am however someone skeptical of any proposal to reduce drug penalties (especially for possession of up to 4 grams--that's quite a bit of dope!) down to a misdemeanor level thereby shifting more costs back to the counties. To me, that's just a transparent step toward decriminalization. If that's your goal, just be honest an say so.

Anonymous said...

Originally, the point of the state jail felony was to appease the private prison industry and allow for the construction of more prisons. John Whitmire had taken 100's of thousands of dollars from their lobbyists and they were demanding something in return so he created a completely new charge that would keep offenders locked up longer thereby creating the need for new prisons.

Of course at the same time he also created a back door to this new charge so that the wealthier law breakers or those with connections to the district attorney could have their felony charge reduced to a misdemeanor, the 12.44 reduction. In other words, the roadmap for having the SJF reduced to a misdemeanor has always been there (see section 12.44 of the Texas Penal Code)you just had to A) have the ability to retain quality representation, or, B) know someone with the right connection to the DA's office.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@5:40, less than four grams is still user-levels of dope. Someone with 3.5 grams of cocaine, e.g., has an 8-ball. That's an amount purchased for consumption, not resale. The distinction between people caught with one and three grams of drugs, e.g., is basically nil. It's the same category of offenders.

Otherwise, no one has suggested "shifting more costs back to the counties" without providing resources. In fact, the point of reducing penalties in this context is that there is otherwise no source for treatment funds, whereas reducing penalties would free up a great deal of money that could be used to fund treatment services. That's not "decriminalization," drug possession would still be against the law.

The joint legislative committee on opiods has been complaining all year about the lack of treatment services in Texas, as probation directors did at yesterday's hearing. But in the end, there are only three possible money sources to pay for treatment. 1) Raise taxes, which is a non-starter; 2) expand Medicaid, with the Guv and Lite Guv have said they oppose; or 3) reduce penalties and use the savings to fund treatment. There are no other practical options.

Salty Lacie said...

Why isn't shifting at least a portion responsibility back to the counties a feasible option? It would have the joint benefit of reining in out of control DAs and making the public more aware of the absurdity of long sentences for low level offenses.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good point, @Salty. Presently, there are economic incentives for local DAs and judges to overuse incarceration. That's the motivation behind the cap and trade suggestion discussed on this podcast last year, which would have the effect of making local officials more accountable for decisions to incarcerate.

TriggerMortis said...

Is there any way of finding how much private prison lobbyists have donated to which politicians? And any way of finding which laws these politicians then authored after they accepted these donations? I think this information would be quite telling.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Honestly, TM, the private prison folks in Texas are mostly playing defense when we try to close their facilities, they're not actively promoting harsh drug laws, that I've seen. The main obstacles to that are probation directors (who don't want penalties reduced bc it reduces their budgets), and prosecutors, especially rural ones.

Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed your posts and even when I disagree with you, I have believed you at least look at both sides. I do, however, think that you over generalized your last comments. Probation Directors have not advocated the raising or lowering of penalties due to cost benefits. That it has been mentioned before, I am certain. I know that it has been mentioned in context of the ability to get people the right amount of treatment and the amount of time necessary for that treatment as well as the cost of that treatment. This argument of treatment has always been at the forefront of the argument. Legalizing possession, or reducing a Class A to a Class B will make an impact on the entire system, good and bad. I would hope that you are not making a decision solely based upon your perceived idea of cost benefit either. People who need treatment do not sit outside society with no effect. Take a look at California and the issues they have had for example.