By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist
Houston is leading the way in reducing crime and public safety costs, says Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. According to his article in the Houston Chronicle:
“Houston’s murder rate fell 26 percent in 2011, reaching its lowest level since 1965. More broadly, the city’s violent crime rate declined 7 percent in 2011. This crime reduction has occurred simultaneously with a drop in both the local and state incarceration rates. As recently as 2008, the Harris County Jail occasionally held up to 12,000 inmates. Today, the jail population has plummeted to about 8,500.
Consequently, Harris County taxpayers no longer must pony up $31 million to send overflow inmates to jails as far away as Louisiana. Overtime costs that recently exceeded $40 million per year have been slashed, and the sheriff’s office has asked for a flat budget for the next fiscal year.
On the state level, Texas has seen more than a 9 percent drop in both its incarceration and crime rates since 2005.”
A major reason for the drop in Harris County’s jail population is the County’s new policy of prosecuting trace drug possession cases as misdemeanors instead of felonies. Though, we don’t necessarily agree that those with more than a scintilla…rightfully continue to be charged as felons. Being caught with a higher quantity of drugs for one’s own use does not necessarily make that person more of a criminal. Those with drug addiction problems would benefit from treatment programs and other alternatives to incarceration – which are more successful and less costly to taxpayers.
Other efforts to reduce incarceration will be the Harris County Felony Mental Health Court, and the opening of a sobering center for those arrested on public intoxication charges. For even more progress, Levin suggested that Harris County take advantage of the state law enacted in 2007 that allows police to issue citations and notices to appear for low-level, non violent misdemeanors, including a couple of ounces or less of marijuana, as well as opening up the option of pretrial release and reducing the bond schedule amounts for low-risk detainees. (According to the article, a whopping 73% of the jail population is awaiting trial.)
Let’s continue the momentum! To learn about the ACLU of Texas’ Criminal Law Reform Campaign, sign up for our e-alerts or join our Community Action Network to become more involved in the fight for justice in Texas.