Pubdate: Fri, 13 Sep 2002
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2002 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Thom Marshall


IT HAPPENED IN CHURCH. Judge Michael T. McSpadden of the 209th District 
Court stood up and testified that he knows the way.

Black ministers were seated on one side of the aisle, white judges on the 
other. The preachers had invited Harris County's felony court judges to 
meet and discuss how they might work to restrict the flow of young black 
men from Houston neighborhoods to state prisons.

The way he knows to do that, McSpadden said, is to reduce the penalty for 
delivery or possession of less than a gram of a controlled substance. Make 
the crime a misdemeanor instead of a felony.


I wasn't sure what to expect when I drove across town Tuesday afternoon to 
observe this gathering in the New Life Tabernacle Church of God in Christ.

After all, your typical judge is a determined and steadfast and 
strong-willed person who is accustomed to running his or her own show in a 
courtroom. And your typical preacher is a determined and steadfast and 
strong-willed person who is accustomed to running his or her own show in a 

Judges welcome pastors' input That such a meeting occurred at all is a 
credit to those who gathered. But if it proves to be pivotal in bringing 
about major Texas criminal justice reforms, this meeting will earn the 
status of a near miracle.

There were other notable highlights. Judges said they welcomed the pastors' 
involvement. One judge said it would be helpful to have a list of the 
pastors' phone numbers on the bench. That way, if a defendant needs a job 
in order to qualify for probation instead of prison, the judge can call the 
appropriate preacher to ask if he can find the man a job.

Pastor F.N. Williams Sr., president of Houston Ministers Against Crime, 
suggested forming a committee of a few judges and a few pastors as a means 
of keeping the lines of communications open between the groups.

But if there had been a prize for best suggestion, McSpadden would have won it.

It is one thing for a newsman to write columns about the need to reform our 
criminal justice system's treatment of people charged with nonviolent drug 

Stop spending so much to keep them in prison. Stop putting felony 
convictions on their records that punish them for the rest of their lives. 
Nothing unusual about a newspaper guy saying such things.

But it is something else entirely when a Republican judge in Houston with 
21 years on the bench says the penalty should be reduced in cases involving 
possession or delivery of small amounts. Traditionally, elected officials 
have avoided taking such a stand.

After the meeting, I talked to McSpadden to be sure that he meant what I'd 
understood him to say. He did.

"The largest number of the cases on about every docket are drug cases, and 
the majority of those cases are a minuscule amount," he said.

Some cases involve only drug residue, he said. And following trials, when 
he talks to the jurors, they always ask: "What are we doing here?" They 
say: "This is the biggest waste of time." They say: "District court should 
be for more serious cases."

And McSpadden agrees.

"Rather than spending our time and resources on these cases," he said, "we 
should be devoting more time to the violent offenders."

A common-sense approach He said he does not advocate legalization of drugs, 
but believes delivery/possession of a small amount of drugs should be 
recategorized as a class A misdemeanor.

"I don't look at this as a liberal approach to the problem," said the 
judge, "but as a common-sense approach, coupled with fairness."

He said that he came to this conclusion some five or six years ago "when it 
was obvious that the 'war on drugs' was a complete failure evidenced by the 
dramatic increase of drug cases overwhelming our dockets."

But he said there hadn't been an appropriate opportunity for him to profess 
this major change in how he sees things before the meeting this week.

In church.
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