Texas spends more than $100 million each biennium to cycle addicts through a system of incarceration that provides little to no treatment or rehabilitation. We send more than 7,000 people per year for possession of a controlled substance in amounts that indicate addiction.
The majority of these addicts are re-arrested shortly after release because addiction is a disease characterized by relapse and Texas doesn’t provide them treatment while they’re locked up. We must spend tax dollars more effectively. That’s why Just Liberty endorses HB 2398 by Phil King, which would reduce penalties for low-level drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor and fund treatment services for drug addicts on probation.
Bi-partisan coalition for reform
The following organizations support this proposal: Texas Public Policy Foundation, Texas Association of Business, Empower Texans, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Faith in Texas, Texans for Accountable Government (TAG), ACLU of Texas, Goodwill, the Austin Justice Coalition, the Texas Fair Defense Project, Prison Fellowship, the Christian Life Commission, and Just Liberty.
Prison doesn’t cure addiciton!
The money Texas spends to warehouse people must be redirected to treatment and community supervision. We can accomplish this by reducing penalties for low-level drug possession and using the savings to provide county-level treatment and rehabilitation services.
In November, voters in Oklahoma joined thirteen other states which have decreased penalties for user-level drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, devoting savings to treatment and reentry services. The Texas Legislature should follow their lead.
Treatment works, incarceration fails
Addicts who complete drug treatment are 40-60 percent less likely to relapse, are less likely to commit another crime, and are 40 percent more likely to find a job.
Harsh penalties don’t deter addicts from using. If they did, Texas would not have seen waves of drug epidemics – most recently involving opiods, which have resulted in thousands of Texas overdoses – in the decades since we made drug possession a felony.
Texas would get more bang for the buck by re-directing spending away from prisons and toward community supervision and treatment, especially at the pre-trial level where such resources are most effective to prevent re-arrest and relapse.
Reclassify penalties from felony to misdemeanor
Not only do addicts not receive treatment when the state locks them up, they leave incarceration with a felony label which will hinder their ability to gain employment and housing for years to come. Addicts already face enough barriers without larding on this extra hindrance to success.
Reclassifying possession to a misdemeanor would also send a message that dealing or manufacturing drugs is a more serious crime than merely using them. Current law treats addicts and drug dealers identically, punishing them based on the quantity of drugs they’re caught with, not based on what they’re doing with them.
The 14 states which have reduced user-level drug possession to a misdemeanor as a result enjoy lower rates of illicit drug use, increased drug treatment admissions, and lower incarceration rates. Also, states which have reduced drug possession to a misdemeanor enjoy lower rates of violent and property crime.
Time for smarter approaches on drug addiction
Drug addiction should be treated locally, close to family, church, and the people who care most for them.
Relapse rates for substance use disorders are similar to those for people with diabetes and hypertension. Drug addiction should be approached like other chronic illnesses.
People with addiction are less likely to return to criminal behaviors if they have a job, take care of others, and generally have an opportunity to be a responsible citizen.
Treatment in the community lets everyone participate, showing loved ones that we value them, love them, and will work with them toward successful recovery.
How to fix the problem
Texas should reduce penalties for user-level amounts of possession of addictive drugs from an automatic felony to a Class A misdemeanor so that people can be treated for addiction in their local community. Divert money saved by reduced felony incarceration into local treatment alternatives.
The Texas Legislature can save money, reduce incarceration, and save lives with this simple change. Contact your legislators today and tell them it’s time for Texas to get smart on crime an stop incarcerating drug addicts instead of treating them.