Pubdate: Sat, 21 Sep 2002
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2002 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Thom Marshall


OUR TEXAS CRIMINAL justice system is a complicated, confounding and 
frustrating puzzle, but some pieces are starting to fit together.

State District Judge Michael T. McSpadden heard from many people during the 
past week, after he stated publicly that delivery or possession of less 
than a gram of a controlled substance should be reduced from a felony to a 
misdemeanor. And all but one agreed with him, he said Friday.

McSpadden made his view known at a recent meeting hosted by black ministers 
who are concerned about the large number of young black men being sent to 
prison and the impact this has on their families and neighborhoods. The 
ministers also are concerned about the way a felony record can limit a 
young man's opportunities and potential for the rest of his life.

Must Be Tough, but Also Smart

A veteran of 21 years on the bench, McSpadden said he expected more 
controversy after the paper reported he advised ministers to lobby state 
lawmakers to reduce the punishment for small-amount drug crimes. Instead, 
he found overwhelming support for his opinion that reducing the punishment 
for small amounts of drugs is not liberal thinking, but "a common-sense 
approach, coupled with fairness."

State Sen. John Whitmire said Friday that he applauds McSpadden's stand. 
"I'd be more than glad to work with him," Whitmire said. "While we are 
tough on crime, we also need to be smart."

He said we spend about $2.5 billion a year incarcerating people, and a 
great many of them are locked up for crimes involving small amounts of 
drugs. But at the same time, if someone wants help breaking a cocaine habit 
in Harris County, there is no state or county facility where he can get it.

Our criminal justice system is largely driven by drug abuse, he said, and 
yet we have no measures in place to help people avoid prison. There should 
be a facility where people with addictions could get help, "no questions 

Like McSpadden, Whitmire said he is "not talking about legalizing," but the 
system needs an option. Now if someone has an addiction, and also maybe 
some related minor probation violations, judges must choose between sending 
the person back home or to prison.

Maybe he isn't really a bad person who needs to be in prison. And perhaps 
if he gets to go home, his problem will just grow worse. Whitmire said we 
need facilities that would let such a person stay in his community and 
would work with him to beat the habit. And do it without scarring his 
future with a felony record.

Problem is, he said, "This state's broke."

So Much, So Long, So Wrong

There isn't likely to be any new money to spare for new programs or new 
facilities. But what if we didn't have to spend so much to keep so many 
people locked up for so long for offenses involving small amounts of drugs?

McSpadden said he checked his docket last week and found that almost 
one-third of the cases every day involved possession or delivery of less 
than a gram.

Sgt. Linda Franklin with the Harris County Sheriff's Department is in 
charge of counting all the people put on buses to state facilities. In the 
month of August, she said, almost 1,500 county residents were taken to 
state jail or prison facilities.

If all the felony courts run about the same percentage of drug offenses 
involving small amounts, that could mean 500 people a month not getting on 
those buses. Times 12 equals 6,000 a year.

And if it costs an average of $15,000 a year to keep each of them locked 
up, the annual savings from reducing small-amount drug charges to 
misdemeanors would be in the neighborhood of $90 million, as I figure it.

It's a rough and quick estimate, and I'll ask around for more exact 
figures. But this gives us some idea of the kind of money that could be 
redirected from incarceration to treatment.

Some pieces of the puzzle are starting to fit together.
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