Pubdate: Fri,  3 Jan 2003
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Thom Marshall


SOME ACTIVISTS who favor criminal justice reform see opportunity looming in 
the big budget shortfall that awaits the upcoming session of our state 

Bill Hobby, however, lacks such optimism.

The reformers' line of logic contends that if our lawmakers would simply 
adjust the penalties on some nonviolent, small-time drug crimes, it would 
result in such a big reduction in prison populations that some units could 
be closed, we wouldn't need as many guards or as much equipment, and the 
savings would be enormous.

And there is growing support for change.

State District Judge Michael McSpadden, a Republican, recently suggested to 
a group of black ministers in Houston that one way to help stop the flow of 
young men from their neighborhoods to prisons would be to lobby for a 
change in the law. He said the crimes of delivery or possession of less 
than a gram of controlled substance should be reduced from felonies to 

Tough, not smart, on crime State Sen. John Whitmire, a Democrat, applauded 
McSpadden's stand and said he would work with him.

"While we are tough on crime," Whitmire said, "we also need to be smart."

All this sounded pretty promising. I've been trying to pay close attention 
to criminal justice issues the past two or three years, and I agree with 
those who are calling for reform.

A couple of days ago a friend and I were discussing the possibilities, and 
he suggested that Hobby would be a good person to ask about the chances.

Hobby, a Democrat, was first elected our Texas lieutenant governor in 1972 
and got re-elected four times. It added up to 18 years, the longest anyone 
has spent in that office. So you couldn't expect to find a more qualified 
or astute observer of state politics and government.

"Texas," he said, "locks up more people than any other state."

"And we don't take education very seriously in this state," he said. "Texas 
is under-educated and over-imprisoned."

"Why imprison someone for a lifestyle choice to smoke marijuana?" he asked.

"The drug war is a failure."

I nodded agreement vigorously and asked, what are the chances? What will it 
take to get some reforms?

Hobby's hand moved quickly to his pocket. It was almost a jerk or a twitch. 
He explained the involuntary action developed during his many years as 
lieutenant governor.

Across-the-board cuts "When I hear that word `reform,' " he said, "I put my 
hand firmly on my wallet."

He said that when people come to Austin wanting to reform something, they 
are saying to the politicians that the world will be a better place if you 
take the money or the power from the group on the other side of the issue 
and give it to our group. Winning a contest like that is never easy. Reform 
is always a hard fight.

What about the budget angle?

Hobby said the shortfall could easily go way beyond the early estimate of 
$5 billion. The Legislature can't make that much up by cutting prison 
funding. And, besides, the senators and representatives would be certain to 
face charges of going soft on crime from their opponents in the next election.

Budget problems likely will be dealt with by across-the-board cuts -- each 
item getting the same percentage as before, but of the smaller total, 
whatever that turns out to be.

I thanked Hobby for helping me understand how things worked. But I told him 
that after hearing his explanation I was depressed.

"If you're not," he said, "you don't understand the problem."
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