Thursday, November 18, 2010

On the benefits to county budgets, local police coverage from reducing pot penalties

Thank you Grits.

Grits has been arguing that budget cuts in corrections will require policy changes in addition to merely reducing line items at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, a reality that other states like Arizona andOklahoma are struggling with as well. One of the simplest, most elegant and helpful solutions would be to ratchet down drug penalties one notch all the way across the board - both for felony levels and misdemeanor marijuana charges. I've been focused on ways to save money in the state budget - particularly through lowering "less-than-a-gram" cases from a state jail felony to a Class A misdemeanor, and long-term by reducing the highest felony drug penalties (which at current levels often exceed murder sentences).

But savings to county budgets would be significant as well, particularly as it regards marijuana arrests. And just as important, lowering penalties would free up police officers to focus on more important crimes. Right now possession of an ounce of weed is a Class B misdemeanor, which means police typically arrest the person, take them to the jail, and the arresting officer is out of circulation for some period of time (let's conservatively say an hour) for booking and processing. After that, the county must pay for attorneys for the indigent among them, jail and court costs, etc.. And in the end most sentences are probated, misdemeanor probation caseloads become bloated, fines and fees collected don't cover costs, particularly for indigent defendants, and the whole process comes to seem rather pointless all the way around.

Ratcheting down the penalty to a Class C for low-level pot possession would save money on jail time, indigent defense, and keep more officers on the street to focus on more significant crimes. Plus Class Cs generate fine income without the county paying for indigent defense, etc.. California recently shifted to fine-only tickets for low-level pot possession, but it's been in place so short a time I doubt there's data yet on payment rates. In any event, we're talking about a lot of resources devoted to pot possession arrests. These data were compiled from Chapter 8 of DPS' annual Texas Crime Report:

Marijuana Arrests as a Percentage of All Texas Drug Possession Arrests

2006: 52.1%
2007: 52.7%
2008: 54.6%
2009: 57.9%

At a time when clearance rates for offenses from burglary to murder are low, these data represent misplaced crime fighting priorities. Texas law enforcement arrested 69,956 adults for marijuana possession in 2009. If 80% of those were ticketed without arrest, that would have been 55,965 fewer arrests statewide. Assuming each arrest takes the officer off the street for one hour, reducing this penalty would be the equivalent of adding nearly 7,000 8-hour officer days on Texas' streets to perform other, more important tasks, without paying one dime extra! And those assumptions still allow for police to arrest one person in five found in possession of marijuana, including juveniles, those also engaged in other crimes, and those who pose a threat to themselves or others.

This suggestion does not propose "decriminalization," and pot possession would still be illegal, just like possession of harder drugs. The penalties would just be rationalized to reflect the state's actual ability to pay for them, and to get more bang for the buck from our criminal justice dollars at all levels of the justice system.


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