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Sentencing: Veteran Houston Judge Calls for Shorter Sentences for Drug Possession

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #462)
Consequences of Prohibition
Drug War Issues

Harris County (Houston), Texas, currently has some 1,869 inmates serving state jail time for possessing less than a gram of illegal drugs -- more than double the number in Bexar (San Antonio), Dallas, and Tarrant (Ft. Worth) counties combined -- and now a veteran Houston jurist is saying enough is enough. The city's premier newspaper agrees with him.

State District Judge Michael McSpadden, a pro-police, pro-prosecutor Republican with more than two decades on the Houston bench, told the Houston Chronicle that small-time drug cases were clogging court dockets and swelling jail populations without addressing the underlying causes of drug abuse. Police and prosecutors brought possession charges against people possessing no more than crack residue to pad their statistics, he added. Drug addicts should be offered treatment and drug court, not state jail time, he said.

Under Texas law, possession of less than a gram of illegal drugs is a felony punishable by up to two years in a state jail. Harris County inmates account for more than one-third of all 4,846 state jail inmates statewide doing time for possession of less than a gram. Most of those crack residue cases could instead be charged as possession of paraphernalia, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in county jail, McSpadden said.

Now, McSpadden is asking Gov. Rick Perry (R) and the Texas legislature to make possession or delivery of less than a gram a misdemeanor. In a letter he recently sent to Perry, he wrote: "These minor offenses are now overwhelming every felony docket, and the courts necessarily spend less time on the more important, violent crimes."

It also costs money to imprison thousands of low-level drug offenders. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the state paid more than $59 million to imprison less-than-a-gram offenders last year. And Harris County taxpayers may be about to pay up for the jailing binge, too. The County Commissioner Court is currently pondering building two new jails at a projected cost of $267 million to address overcrowding.

Jailing small-fries doesn't even work, McFadden wrote to Perry. "Unfortunately, it is obvious that the demand for drugs will not diminish, no matter what the consequences are," he wrote. "I changed my mind a few years ago when it was obvious the 'war on drugs' was a complete failure and should be considered as symbolic at best."

A Perry spokeswoman told the Houston Chronicle the governor will wait and see on any sentencing reform bills. "He is willing to look at anything that the Legislature presents him, and he wants to hear the debate in the Legislature about the pros and cons of the issue," said Kathy Walt. The governor supports creating drug courts, but believes those who violate the drug laws should be prosecuted, she added.

The Houston Chronicle was more positive about McSpadden's ideas in a Monday editorial. "When a respected felony criminal judge known for his lock-'em-up philosophy concludes that slamming minor drug offenders with long sentences is counterproductive to sensible prison management and public safety, perhaps it's time for Harris County to listen," the paper opined. "And when that judge's advice -- to provide drug abusers with treatment options while focusing policing efforts on major offenders -- squares with best practices in other counties, perhaps it's time for Harris County to change its crime-fighting ways."

The current approach is ineffective, expensive, and short-sighted, the Chronicle complained. "After all, the ill effects on a community of committing huge numbers of prospectless drug addicts to lengthy jail sentences and felony records without dealing with their underlying drug dependence are well-documented and long-term. And those ill effects are suffered by everyone in this county."

Well, now, there's news from Houston. It's up to the legislature and the governor to listen.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

Can anyone direct me to where I should start...My son is servring a 15 year federal sentence ...conspiracy to sale meth. 15 YEARS! first time offender no criminal priors!

Fri, 11/24/2006 - 6:28pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Serving a sentence, or facing one?

My heart goes out to you. I understand the desperation and pain you are going through.

 If he has not yet been sentenced, here is what you need to do if you are able. Get the best lawyer you can buy. Public defenders are simply bargainers for the state. Their job is to offer deals to keep the cases out of overworked courts.

Admit nothing.

Get your child into a rehab program, as soon as possible. This looks good on the record, even though the "treatment" is a waste of money. Although the situation looks grim, things could be worse. The fact that this is a first offense usually means that the defendant will get little or no jail time if he jumps through the government hoops. There are many alternatives for rehab programs. Some are religious, some are nonsecular. Do some research and decide whether a twelve-step program, a religious based one, or an alternative such as Rational Recovery are best for your child, based on his belief system.

This is the hardest advice for you to accept: You cannot fix your child. Neither can you trust anything he says. Meth makes almost anyone a liar, whether they want to be one or not. It comes with the territory called addiction. Regardless of the results for your child, try to keep in mind that it is not your problem. Join a support group for your own sanity. You will need as much help as your son. Good luck. If you want to talk further with me, post an email address where you can be contacted. You might want to create a new account just for this situation at Hotmail or Juno, so it does not interfere with your regular mail.


Mon, 11/27/2006 - 10:38am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that small time drug offenders generally need treatment more than jail time -- at least during their first at-bat before a judge.

As a former Texas felony drug prosecutor (and a liberal Texas Democrat), I think it is idiotic to think that drugs don't promote violence or that drug use doesn't cost Texas and the nation millions of dollars every year in lost productivity, accidents, and broken families.

Texas already has a (lock-down) felony drug treatment program that is underfunded, under-staffed, and lacks a sufficient number of beds. We do need to channel drug offenders into a separate criminal justice system that can address their needs. Treatment, as any alcoholic or tobacco addict can tell you, is up to the abuser (with help) in order to succeed. For those who don't want help and who don't want to quit, they need to go to prison.

My philosophy as a prosecutor is this: people should do the right thing. They should do it because it is right, or because they fear the consequences. I still don't care which.

We also should focus some more attention to the part of the drug user world that is steadily employed and upper-class. The reason the United States is the number one importer of illegal drugs is because we are the number one consumer of drugs. When someone shows me the good that cocaine, meth, and marijuana does for our society when recreationally used, I might reconsider my position.

Fri, 11/24/2006 - 10:58pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Dear former Texas felony drug prosecutor:

Besides the fact that cocaine and marijuana do have important medicinal uses, and of course one cannot say the same out right for crystal meth, it's obvious the reason that these so-called "steadily employed and upper-class" drug users are steadily employed because the majority of drug users -- whether or not they are upper-class -- use drugs (including alcohol) responsibly, and in moderation.

To claim out-right that all illegal drugs do nothing but promote violence, and is the definitive cause of "lost producivity, accidents, and broken families," are not only the proclamations of an idiot, but a severely narrow minded idiot!

As far as doing the "right thing" is concerned, as long as my adult neighbor does not commit a crime against person or property, it's none of my business what he, or she, puts into his, or her body.

It's people like you, Mr.Prosecutor, who believe that fear of incarceration is always the answer to societies problems are the ones responsible for the bottomless pit of a mess, and un-neccessary waste of tax-payer dollars the so-called drug war is costing.

How productive can one be behind bars? And what of the cost of incarceration?

My philosophy: Unless, or until I've committed a crime -- stay away from my urine, and stay out of my house!

Prosecute that, you sanctimonious piece of SHIT!

Sat, 11/25/2006 - 5:57pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Quote: "I think it is idiotic to think that drugs don't promote violence or that drug use doesn't cost Texas and the nation millions of dollars every year in lost productivity, accidents, and broken families."

Wrong. The damage is caused by making drugs illegal, thus creating the consequences that occur. The same argument was used to sponsor Prohibition, and the country is still paying for the strengthening of the criminal element that occurred as a result. Another side effect of this policy is that your paycheck was justified.

Quote: "Treatment, as any alcoholic or tobacco addict can tell you, is up to the abuser (with help) in order to succeed."

Wrong. This is a self-serving myth created by treatment program administrators in order to justify their continued funding in the face of negative or poor results. Treatment simply lines the coffers of those who profit from it. Even the most popular programs admit a success rate of less than five percent. Would you have us believe that ninety-five percent of those who enter treatment have no interest in succeeding?

Quote: "For those who don't want help and who don't want to quit, they need to go to prison."

Why? Because they disagree with your world view?

Quote: "People should do the right thing."

Here, at last, we are in agreement. The problem is in deciding the 'right' thing.

Have a great day, ok?      Smile

Mon, 11/27/2006 - 11:14am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Trust me REHAB IS WORSE. At least with Jail they only want your time. Once you start rehab you end up bankrupting entire families in the struggle to keep their family member out of jail. And for what? To prevent someone from smoking marijuana? Because with drug tests thats all you'll find. Most other drugs leave the system quickly but you'll be able to make everyone who smokes marijuana have a hell of a time with it.

Is it that offensive that someone else might hold a differing view on drugs then you? Because they don't go to the doctor to get Prescription Valium or Anti Depressants or Xanex or Vicodin or Oxycontin. Is it really that offensive that some people want to smoke a joint at night?

If you support the war on drugs and drink coffee, or coca-cola, or smoke cigarettes and enjoy a glass of wine that makes you a grade A hypocrite. We see the children held up as an example "Don't let kids do drugs" If you let your kid drink Pepsi, Coke, or RC you're giving your child drugs. If you use Ritalin, anti Depressants anxiety medication you're giving your children drugs.

You are NOT going to change human Nature. People may dance to your little tune long enough to get the system off their back but they're not going to change. So rather then declaring the entire nation "A Drug Free Zone" start specifying drug zones. Is it worth 60,000$ a year to imprison someone who smokes a doobie now and again? No its not.

The articles right the war on drugs is a failure. But drug courts and treatments are giving corporations license to persecute. The tests that they use to detect drugs are not even as accurate as a polygraph causing false positives.

Sat, 11/25/2006 - 1:34am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The most anyone can do is pray that we as a people catch the message the judicial system is sending. We are tired of paying the price for the working or non-working person to enter into treatment. Those with jobs don't want to pay for treatment and the others are considered indigent so the tax payer pays for the services.

I am an addicted person in recovery and work as a Substance Abuse Counselor in the state of Texas. I know treatment works, but the person has to want to change. Our society has glamorized the use of drugs by noy forcing the substance user into treatment. Once the user is exposed to the option of treatment, the information is hard to ignore and it interrupts the next using attempt. We must begin to force treatment, after all we force people into prison.

Sun, 02/04/2007 - 10:19pm Permalink
T Boyd (not verified)

I am a 48 year old separated female. I just recently got my first drug charge in life. honestly I have smoked marijuana since I was .21 years old. I was caught in possession of meth and had just started smoking it a year ago. they want to give me two years probation for having less than a gram. I think it is too much for a first then since I am at the age I am. I have read the previous post and believe that the person has to want to stop anything that they are doing. I also believe that other people should not put their opinions or views on individual people. for an example is this seat belt law. who is anyone to tell me that I have to wear a seatbelt because theu are for protecting me. I am NOT nor have been a violent person. I have always were and when I raise my chils. dren I did not do drugs in front of them. I am against having miimum and maximum. sentence I believe that each individual case should be looked at as an individual charger should be enforced. apparently I have been grouped with all first time offenders whether they are 20 years old or 50 years old. maturity and self control was not part of my sentence. 20 year olds do not have the same point of use mine said or maturity that a 50-year-old does. the courts are so packed that they don't have time to assess individual situation.
Tue, 11/26/2013 - 2:00am Permalink

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