Pubdate: Fri, 31 Jan 2014
Source: Austin Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2014 Austin Chronicle Corp.
Author: Jordan Smith


During a panel discussion last week at the World Economic Forum in 
Switzerland, Gov. Rick Perry made national headlines by saying not 
only that Washington and Colorado had every right to legalize pot, 
but also that he's long been a supporter of drug decriminalization 
policies in Texas. Oh, if it were only that simple.

Perry's comments, made on a panel with Colombian President Juan 
Manuel Santos and former United Nations Secretary Gen-eral Kofi 
Annan, reiterated his traditional "states' rights" stance.

Just as with regulating abortion, states should have the right to 
legalize pot, he said. He cautioned that he is "not for the 
legalization of drugs," but that he does favor less punitive drug 
policy, and supports programs such as drug courts: "after 40 years of 
the war on drugs, I can't change what happened in the past," he said, 
as reported by the Austin American-States-man. "What I can do as the 
governor of the second largest state in the nation is to implement 
policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people 
from going to prison and destroying their lives, and that's what 
we've done over the last decade." That Perry is now on the record as 
a supporter of drug decriminalization made headlines across the 
country, and the press releases of a handful of drug-reform 
organizations. And, frankly, it is news in Texas, despite Perry's 
suggestion to the contrary.

Indeed, modest decriminalization reforms - like Houston Rep. Harold 
Dutton's perennial bid for statewide marijuana decriminalization - 
have never caught on, despite the amount of money that could be saved 
and the number of individuals who would be diverted from the criminal 
justice system. One has to wonder whether that measure might have 
been more popular with Perry's public support.

Dutton's bill has been filed during each legislative session under 
Perry's governorship, so there's been plenty of time to do just that.

It is true that Perry has supported drug court reforms - and that 
drug courts are a good tool to divert drug users from jail. The 
problem, however, is that the number of counties that actually have 
drug diversion programs is relatively small, as is the pool of 
individuals eligible for drug courts compared to the total number of 
individuals arrested for drug possession each year in Texas. Had 
Perry come out in favor of a drug treatment measure proposed in 2007 
(one that sailed out of committee and through the Senate before 
getting hung up on the House floor), the state would have diverted 
larger numbers of users from jail and would already have saved, 
between 2008 and 2012, at least $471 million. And those measures that 
have passed seem to have had only a limited impact - including the 
so-called cite-and-release bill passed in 2007, which allowed 
officers to ticket instead of arrest individuals busted (with 
identification and in their home county) for a variety of 
misdemeanors, including minor pot possession.

According to yearly crime data compiled by the Department of Public 
Safety, arrests for drug possession have steadily increased during 
Perry's tenure.

Arrests for pot possession have remained a large percentage of all 
drug-possession arrests, while racial disparities - with a 
disproportionate percentage of blacks facing arrest - persist. In 
2001, for example, Perry's first year in office, a total of 84,828 
adults and 9,060 juveniles were arrested for drug possession. Of 
those, 55% of adults and 78% of juveniles were arrested for marijuana 
possession. A flash forward to 2012 - five years after passage of 
cite-and-release, and the most recent year for which there are 
numbers - reveals 124,766 adults and 8,132 juveniles arrested for 
drug possession. And of those, 59% of the adults and a staggering 81% 
of the juveniles were arrested for pot possession. Over the entire 
11-year period covered by DPS data, the percentage of adults arrested 
for pot possession has fluctuated some - from a low of 50% in 2006 to 
a high of 61% in 2010 - while the percentage of juveniles arrested on 
that same charge has remained stable at around 80%.

In other words, Perry's comments in Switzerland may help to encourage 
other conservatives to be more open to the idea of announcing support 
for decriminalization measures - but with Perry now a lame duck guv, 
they seem to be of little practical import in Texas. Nonetheless, 
criminal justice advocates argue that Perry's stated position does 
fit within an overarching framework of being smarter on crime and 
employing evidence-based practices to keep communities safe and to 
effectively rehabilitate individuals. And holding candidates' feet to 
the fire on the issue will be the job of Texas voters in this election year.

Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice 
Coalition, agrees that while Texas has a long way to go to be truly 
smart on crime, Perry's newest proclamations have at least symbolic 
impact. "They're symbolic of where Texas is going - and where we're 
going nationally," she said. "I don't see one state proud to say 'we 
lock up non-violent offenders.' I don't see even one state saying 
that." Though for now at least, they may continue to do so.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom