Texas businesses promote overhaul of drug laws

Posted Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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kennedy Texas businesses have finally wised up.

With crime down, the power-player Texas Association of Business asks: Why are judges still filling up the prisons?

In the words of TAB's Bill Hammond: "We think too many people are being sent to the slammer."

For the first time, big business will lobby to revise drug laws and promote probation over prison for nonviolent offenders.

"Too many judges are just trying to send people out of sight," Hammond said this week, discussing the new alliance with the budget-hawking Texas Public Policy Foundation and the national Right on Crime campaign to cut justice costs.

"Prisoners cost us money. Probationers stay in the workforce. And then those ex-cons can't get an occupational license or a job because of a mistake they made 20 years ago. We think this whole system is not working well anymore for Texas."

Basically, Texas' prison costs have skyrocketed twice as fast as the much-discussed education costs. TAB quotes state figures:

Cost per prisoner: $51 per day, not counting the costs in welfare for family members or productive work time lost.

Taxpayers' cost to put the same offender on probation instead: $1.40 per day.

So why do small-town judges and prosecutors keep sending petty drug offenders to prison, such as the Tyler man sent to prison for 35 years for 4 ounces of marijuana?

"There's a disconnect for taxpayers," Hammond said.

"We all pay for these long sentences, but we don't realize it. These rural judges and prosecutors can just send everybody to Huntsville [prison] and be 'a hanging judge.' But the whole state is getting stuck with the bill."

Hammond didn't shy away from a question about marijuana laws.

"We favor probation so they don't go to Huntsville and get a Ph.D. in crime," he said.

At the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Marc Levin leads the reform-minded Center for Effective Justice.

"Every dollar we spent incarcerating a nonviolent offender in Texas is a dollar we can't spend building roads, or a dollar we don't have to take from Texans," Levin said.

TAB joined the cause, he said, because "businesses see the need for an available workforce and to remove the barriers to hiring ex-offenders."

In other words, tough-on-crime big talk is tough on Texas.

Bud Kennedy's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 817-390-7538

Twitter: @budkennedy

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