Judge Quest To Decriminalize Minor Drug Use Gets Support
By Brian Rogers
As the Texas Legislature begins its session, a Houston judge is again arguing to end jail time for criminals caught with small amounts of cocaine and crack, but this time he has the support of 15 colleagues.
State District Judge Michael McSpadden on Wednesday sent a letter to the state's top officials and Houston's senators and representatives asking for a change in what he called "draconian" laws.
During the last session, McSpadden stood alone when he asked that charges for possession of a controlled substance of less than 1 gram be reduced from a state jail felony to a misdemeanor.
Two years later, judges from both major political parties are joining the Republican who has been on the bench for more than 20 years.
"Sixteen of us feel that it's just unfair to be convicted for a residue amount and be labeled a felon, which changes your whole life," McSpadden said. "We're not talking about legalizing it; we're talking about making it a misdemeanor."
Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos said the problem is multifaceted, and she is studying the best ways to solve the problems associated with drug abuse, including pre-trial diversion and residential treatment centers.
She said she was looking at the "big picture" and noted that Class A misdemeanors could still involve jail time, which wouldn't help jail overcrowding, and that small drug arrests lower other crimes in neighborhoods.
Lykos also pointed out that any drug user contributes money to criminal empires, including drug lords in Mexico and terrorists worldwide.
"Anyone who uses illicit drugs has blood on their hands," she said.
In his letter, McSpadden suggested reducing the charge and mandating drug treatment. He also recommended funding misdemeanor drug courts.
McSpadden said 25 percent to 30 percent of Harris County's 22 criminal district court dockets are felony charges for less than 1 gram of a controlled substance.
The change, McSpadden argues, would lower dockets and create uniform enforcement across the state. He noted that Dallas County police and prosecutors place a lower priority on these offenses, leading to disparate treatment between counties.
McSpadden said his concerns come from fielding complaints about the system from juries and residents.
"The 'War on Drugs' isn't working, and we as judges realize it," McSpadden said. "And the public realizes it."
During the last session, the proposal didn't make it out of committee.
Chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, didn't return calls for comment on the proposal late Wednesday.
Judges who signed on with McSpadden include fellow Republicans Debbie Mantooth Stricklin, Jeannine Barr, Vanessa Velasquez, Denise Collins, Marc Carter, Belinda Hill, Joan Campbell and Jim Wallace.
Democrats supporting the initiative, who were all elected in November, include Ruben Guerrero, Shawna Reagin, Kevin Fine, David Mendoza, Randy Roll, Hazel Jones and Maria Jackson.
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