By Elena Mejia and Matthew Adams

AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers, already applauded nationally for expanding treatment and rehabilitation programs, may consider reducing some low-level drug sentences in exchange for more offenders getting the help they need to succeed once they leave prison or jail.

While state lawmakers historically have been cautious not to endorse any plan that could seem like the state is easing up on criminals, a politically touchy position, officials said some changes could benefit public safety by getting more offenders the help they need to turn their lives around.

Officials said Texas spends more than $67 million a year to imprison more than 16,000 felons convicted of drug possession — a group that is responsible for 62 percent of the recidivism arrests once they get out, many because they cannot complete therapy programs before they leave prison.

“There is no study out there that (shows) making drug abuse a felony conviction will discontinue the need to use,”  Doug Smith with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a lobby group that supports additional rehabilitation and treatment programs for prisoners, told the House Corrections Committee.

Harris County Assistant District Attorney Kathy Braddock said that 6,404 drug convictions in Houston courts were for possession of a gram or less of an illegal drug. None involved delivery or manufacture of illicit substances.

“We should stop the criminal justice system from holding (those convicts) back later in life,” she said, explaining that Harris County prosecutors are diverting into treatment programs those who are caught with two ounces or less of marijuana, rather than sending them to prison.

Of the 282 offenders who have completed that program so far, only 20 faced new charges in the first — a key time for breaking the cycle of drug abuse, she said.

In recent months, a number of other states have approved legislation to lower penalties for some minor drug crimes, including Utah which downgraded its penalty from jail time to a citation, and Alabama, which has reduced sentences for minor property and drug crimes to save $19 million in prison costs over the next two years.

While no specific Texas proposals have been drafted, conservative Republican groups have endorsed options to lower penalties for some minor drug-possession crimes in exchange for expanded treatment and rehabilitation initiatives.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee also is studying a variety of options to reduce recidivism, including expanded treatment programs.

“Our first instinct is that we want to supervise them at a higher level, but they’re aging out of crime,” said Casey Welabob, director of the community-justice assistance division at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “We shouldn’t supervise them at a higher level than what is needed because that brings more harm than good.”

Since 2007, Texas has expanded its funding for drug and alcohol treatment with great success: recidivism rates have dropped, more ex-offenders are staying out of trouble once they complete the new programs and the numbers of convicts in state prisons have continued to decline, as has the overall crime rate.

Despite that, testimony during a Wednesday hearing of the House Corrections Committee that oversees the state’s criminal justice programs indicates there still is work to be done: Re-arrest rates for convicts coming out of prisons is 42 percent, and 62 percent from state jails that hold lower-level drug and property felons.

In state jails, where felons can only serve terms of up to two years, officials testified that some treatment programs cannot be completed before convicts are released — and that modifications should be considered to increase the success rate.

“There’s not a lot of time to reform anyone in state jail,” said Teresa May, director of the Harris County probation department. “They’re doing the math of how fast they can get out and the re-arrest rate is striking.”

David Gutierrez, chairman of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, said 2,300 drug offenders  had their paroles revoked last year for technical violations, including testing positive for drug use or not participating in treatment programs. “Offenders have bumps along the way after the’re released,” he said.

“We have a re-entry challenge in this state,” said Douglas Smith with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a lobby group that supports treatment initiatives.

Representatives of the Windham School District that operates prison schools, and business groups that hire ex-convicts, say that expanding treatment initiatives inside and outside of state prisons make sense. Once felons serve their time and go on parole, they must find jobs to succeed — and a lack of treatment behind bars can affect their chances of succeeding once they are on the street.

Traci Berry, a senior vice president of Goodwill, said her organization last year served 151,000 Texans, 70 percent of whom had criminal backgrounds. She urged additional programs for education, housing and job training.

State Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, recalled his work with newly released convicts while he worked in auto sales. He said they can succeed if they are provided the right skills through the right programs.

“You’ve got a lot of leaders in there who have led gangs or something like that,” he said. “Put their energy into something more productive.”

House Corrections Committee Chairman Jim Murphy, R-Houston, said his panel intends to continue examining alternatives as a way to improve Texas’ justice system.

“I find this to be a great way to help those folks in a way that would really help themselves,” he said.

This story was published in the Houston Chronicle on Feb. 10, 2016. 

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