The use of alternative courts have reduced Texas’ dependence on prisons, so much so that the state could stand to shut down three prisons this legislative session—unheard of for one of the most incarcerated states in the most incarcerated nation in the world. But experts are now calling on lawmakers to slow the flow of inmates into the system in another way, by reducing the penalties for some nonviolent and relatively common offenses.
According to the Star-Telegram, lawmakers may reduce penalties for offenses like marijuana possession and prostitution. Some argue that offenses like these can’t justify the costs of incarceration. Currently, both marijuana possession and prostitution are classified as Class B misdemeanors, carrying the potential for jail time.
“Throughout the 90s the whole philosophical bent was to put people in prison and throw away the key,” said state Representative 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.”
Rep. Charles Dutton (D-Houston) has introduced legislation that would reduce possession of a small amount of pot or synthetic pot to a Class C misdemeanor, which carries no incarceration penalty. Another bill seeks to reduce prostitution to the same levels.
The Texas penal code hasn’t been reexamined for 20 years, and some believe it’s time. For example, thresholds that separate a misdemeanor theft from a felony theft could be updated to reflect inflation.
Right now, if a theft is valued at less than $50 it’s a class C misdemeanor. Like all other thresholds (and they are scattered throughout the penal code), this could be elevated without risking public safety because $50 20 years ago resembled far more value than $50 today.
In addition, lawmakers are hoping that reducing some of these offenses to lower-level misdemeanors can reduce costs for indigent defense. When jail time isn’t a possibility, the state doesn’t have to foot the bill for legal aid to defendants who can’t afford it themselves. In other words, if jail isn’t on the table the state won’t provide an attorney.
It’s estimated this could save millions. Indigent defense costs rose $91 million from 2001 to 20012 despite prison and jail population declines.
There are multiple benefits to reducing criminal penalties for nonviolent offenses like drug possession. Convincing some lawmakers might be a challenge, however, as they see any lessening of penalties as a sign of being “soft” on crime.
If you are charged with drug possession or even drug trafficking in the state of Texas, you need someone on your side advocating for your rights and your best interests. Contact our offices today to discuss your case and how we might be able to help.