Bills aimed at lowering criminal penalties

Posted Monday, Feb. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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FORT WORTH -- State lawmakers are being asked to reclassify criminal offenses, including marijuana possession and prostitution, in an attempt to reduce the state's prison population and cut costs of appointed attorneys for poor criminal defendants.

The American Bar Association, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union say prison time should be removed as a punishment for some crimes, while others believe that an overhaul of the entire Texas Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure is long overdue.

Besides saving the cost of paying for someone to be held in prison, reclassification could save taxpayers money because county officials would not have to appoint attorneys for indigent residents charged with crimes because being held behind bars is not a punishment alternative.

"Throughout the 90s the whole philosophical bent was to put people in prison and throw away the key," said state Rep. Lon Burnam, D- Fort Worth. "We have far too many people serving prison terms for nonviolent offenses instead of trying to become productive people in society. We can no longer afford to do this."

The call for reform comes at a time when prison inmate levels are leveling off because of the development of alternative courts geared toward treatment instead of incarcerations and the use of state parole policies that have reduced the number of revocations sending inmates back to prison.

The lack of growth in the Texas prison population may allow the state to close three prisons during this legislative session, Burnam said.

But lawmakers need to concentrate on decreasing the prison population and not just reducing its rate of growth, according to organizations pushing for criminal justice reform.

Reclassifying crime

State Rep. Charles Dutton, D-Houston, has filed a bill that, if enacted, would change the possession of a small amount of marijuana or synthetic marijuana from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor.

Other legislation, such as a bill to reclassify some prostitution arrests from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor, may also be debated during the current legislative session in Austin. Class C misdemeanors do not trigger a jail or prison sentence.

Under current law, someone who is convicted of a Class B misdemeanor could be incarcerated up to 180 days and the courts could also impose up the three years of probation in certain circumstances.

An examination of the penal code, which last happened 20 years ago, might lead to altering the threshold numbers for some property offenses, said Vikrant Reddy, a policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

For example, if property is stolen that is less than $50 the crime is a Class C misdemeanor, but if the amount of property stolen is greater than $50 the crime is a Class B misdemeanor, Reddy said.

"The dividing line for this was set in 1993, and we have dividing lines like that all through our penal code," Reddy said. "We can at least index these amounts for inflation. You can make a move like that and not impact public safety."

Removing jail time from the punishment spectrum relieves the state from providing legal aid to defendants who can't hire an attorney on their own.

In Texas, those indigent defense costs have been climbing even as the prison and jail population drops. Texas spent $207.5 million for indigent defense in fiscal year 2012, an increase of more than $91 million since fiscal year 2001, according to figures from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission.

In Tarrant County, indigent defense costs have increased about 43 percent, or more than $4.5 million, between fiscal years 2003 and 2012, even though in 2012 about 100 fewer cases were prosecuted, according to figures from the commission.

Societal costs

There is more than a money cost involved, advocates for reclassification of some Texas laws said.

Texas still holds more prisoners, with 152,000 inmates in 2012, than any other state, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. A year ago, Texas had more than 156,000 inmates in 111 prisons. The state can do more to reduce that number, Reddy said.

"Very long prison terms for low-level offenders harm their families, their job prospects and their housing opportunities," Reddy said.

Burnam said he is also concerned that incarceration weighs more heavily on minority communities.

Robert M.A. Johnson, retired prosecutor and former president of the National District Attorneys Association, worked 40 years as a prosecutor. During the past 40 years, Johnson said, he has seen the Minnesota penal code grow from 35 pages to more than 2,000 pages; his office grow from three attorneys to 40; and the caseload grow from less than 100 cases annually to more than 18,000 cases annually.

"We need to be smarter about this and not ruin good people's lives by putting them in jail," Johnson said.

Jack Strickland, Tarrant County prosecutor, agreed that a review of the Texas Penal Code and the Code of Criminal procedure is overdue, but he also said attorneys and jurists need to agree on a package to present to lawmakers or else they will create an even bigger mess.

Strickland also said that the money savings alone is not a good enough reason to reclassify crimes.

"Anytime you deal with public money you have to dole it out in a conscientious manner. But the criminal justice system has never been cost-effective. It's shallow thinking to believe it can just be run like a business," he said.

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752

Twitter: @mitchmitchel3

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