Pubdate: Thu,  3 Apr 2003
Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Austin American-Statesman


The pressure exerted by a severe decline in state revenues is making itself 
felt in some unexpected ways. One is a challenge from some House 
Republicans to the idea that anyone arrested with even a small amount of 
illegal drugs ought to be thrown into prison.

Currently, someone arrested for having less than a gram of banned 
substances -- an amount you might find in a packet of artificial sweetener 
- -- faces conviction on a state jail felony with up to two years of state 
jail time, even on a first offense.

But faced with a $9.9 billion revenue shortfall in this and the next two 
budget years, even some law-and-order Republicans are favoring a bill that 
would provide that people arrested for small amounts of Ecstasy, LSD, 
cocaine or other illegal drugs could be given "mandatory intensive 
narcotics supervision or confinement" (treatment) rather than jail time and 
a felony conviction. Rep. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, filed the bill, which 
also would reduce the crime to a misdemeanor.

A co-author of that legislation, Rep. Jack Stick, R-Austin, a former 
prosecutor, said he had "sent 1,000 people to prison for these types of 
offenses over the last 10 years, and I'm not sure I feel good about it." 
Current legislation also hits young people who get convicted for having, 
say, a small amount of Ecstasy at a party: "We ruin their lives -- go ahead 
and try to get a job. Even with deferred adjudication, you can't do it."

There's a Nixon-to-China angle here: Republicans seeking to moderate 
punishment for any crime should be much less vulnerable to charges of going 
soft on crime than would a Democrat.

And there's a financial motive: the state could save $240 million over the 
next five years by sending fewer people to state jails for minor drug 
offenses. State officials on Tuesday announced plans to eliminate more than 
600 jobs at prisons because of the budget crunch.

There are still issues to be resolved within Allen's bill. One issue, for 
example, is who pays for the treatment. People from middle-class homes 
probably can afford to pay for their own treatment, and they may even have 
insurance. But those from poorer households probably will need help paying 
for it.

Prosecutors from Harris County don't like the idea of downgrading the 
status of a drug crime to a misdemeanor. And, they say, that would shift 
the cost of prosecution and punishment from the state to the county. Stick 
said one possible alternative is to retain the offense's status as a 
felony, but to provide for expunction of the crime from the record of a 
person who completes treatment and stays clean for at least a year.

We hope these problems can be worked out. We should not automatically send 
small-time drug offenders to jail or stigmatize them with felony 
convictions. If treatment can work, both the offender and society will be 
better off. And if it doesn't work, state jail time remains an option.
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