Mike Norman

When the Texas governor talks pot, people listen

Gov. Rick Perry makes a media splash every time he talks about Texas easing off on marijuana penalties.

He’s not above grabbing attention, so he has talked about marijuana several times recently.

“Over a decade we’ve lowered the penalties,” he told ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel on Tuesday. “We’re trying to be smart about it. You don’t want to ruin a kid’s life for having a joint. And that was historically what you saw.”

Kimmel was taping his late-night show in Austin, where the local crowd roared approval for what Perry was saying.

In other appearances, he’s talked about the drug courts in the state’s largest cities, created to channel drug offenders into treatment programs rather than put them behind bars.

The truth is that Perry isn’t due much credit for the drug courts. But he should get praise for broader-context criminal justice reform that has had a huge social and financial impact on the state.

He signed the bill creating the drug courts in 2001, after his first legislative session as governor, when Democrats still controlled the Legislature’s agenda.

The biggest changes came in 2007, when lawmakers were told Texas prisons were full and the inmate population was projected to grow by 6,700 in just two years.

Perry and other policy leaders had to make a choice between spending an estimated $2.7 billion for additional prison beds or enacting fundamental sentencing reforms.

They chose the latter, focusing criminal justice policy on community supervision alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent offenders, many of them arrested for drugs.

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The Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin think tank that’s the state’s most prodigious producer of conservative policy proposals, has focused on what its leaders call “effective justice,” and they’re particularly proud of the Texas reforms.

Vikrant P. Reddy, a TPPF senior policy analyst, wrote in a Feb. 27 posting on the organization’s website that the changes have allowed the state to shut down three prisons due to unneeded capacity.

“Meanwhile, the crime rate has dropped to its lowest point since 1968,” he wrote.

Legislative Budget Board documents back him up. The agency said in 2007 that the prison population could be expected to grow from a total of 152,898 at the time to 168,166 by 2012.

Instead, new sentencing practices held the inmate number steady, despite a statewide population increase of more than 2 million people.

Brooke Rollins, TPPF’s president and CEO, wrote in October that Texas “has managed to save billions of taxpayer dollars while better providing for the public’s safety” because “prison space once spent housing petty thieves is now available for armed robbers.”

Specifically on marijuana, Texas could do more without going for Colorado-style legalization.

The 2007 reforms signed by Perry allowed police to “cite and summon” offenders rather than arrest them. For technical reasons, that hasn’t been working out so well.

Reddy says it would work better if low-level marijuana possession were made a Class C misdemeanor, similar to theft of less than $50.

It would still be a crime but wouldn’t necessarily bring jail time.

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