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.