In the Eyes of the Law
I am a police officer for a local law enforcement agency and I was asked to provide my thoughts and opinions regarding this issue. As a law enforcement officer, I personally support certain reforms within the Criminal Justice System (CJS). Law Enforcement is just one of three cogs making up the Criminal Justice System; the other two being our Court Systems and Corrections. All three components work together to prevent and punish criminal behavior.
Being on “the streets” for years, so-called crimes against society come to mind first. These victimless crimes (crimes not committed against people or property) are typically drug and alcohol related crimes but also include prostitution, gambling, and others. Alcohol related laws include public intoxication and driving while intoxicated, which can be necessary to enforce to ensure the safety of others and themselves. Prostitution and gambling, well, I personally have not been involved in a case regarding either. Drug offenses however, are prevalent and an area where I believe there should be reform in our corrections system due to the lengthy incarceration periods.
Possession of a controlled substance in penalty group 1 (i.e.: crack, cocaine, methamphetamine) less than a gram in weight is a state jail felony in Texas. Punishment for this offense is up to 2 years in prison. Possession of a controlled substance in penalty group 1 of 1 gram in weight up to less than 4 grams is a third degree felony with a punishment up to 10 years in prison. In my personal opinion, these punishments are overly harsh for nothing more than possession. To put it into perspective, beating up your spouse (family violence) is only a misdemeanor. For small possession charges, I believe in the implementation of pretrial programs in lieu of criminal justice processing. These programs would provide rehabilitation for substance abuse and mental health treatment for first-time, non-violent offenders. Repeat offenders should be given the opportunity to serve their sentence through deferred adjudication. If they complete the program, their conviction is dropped. In 2016, Harris County implemented a similar program which had a 91 percent completion rate in the first two years. In order for these programs to be successful, they need to be properly funded and staffed. I am often asked my opinion about these drugs and whether or not I believe they should be illegal. The Libertarian in me first thinks American adults should be able to decide what they do without government intervention, as long as they do not pose harm to others. After all, the “war on drugs” has been hardly successful and led to the incarceration of millions of Americans, which have broken up families, prevented future employment opportunities, and led to long-standing criminal records. On the flip-side, a family member who was recently arrested on a possession charge told me being arrested was the best thing that ever happened to him. His close friend and partner-in-crime died of an overdose while my family member was going through his legal battle. My family member has since taken part in a deferred adjudication program and is doing good.
Possession of marijuana charges...maybe someday soon the state will take the right step to decriminalize marijuana.
Another issue I commonly deal with, and by “commonly” I mean “daily”, is with individuals who suffer from mental health illnesses. While someone suffering from mental illness does not exempt them from being arrested for a crime they have committed, how they are handled once they enter the corrections side of the CJS is crucial to their health and rehabilitation.
Proper screening of inmates at the time of booking for mental illnesses by professionals is a good start. In 2014, 140 inmates committed suicide in Texas county jails...second highest to deaths of natural causes (310). Our corrections system is unfortunately the largest health care provider for inmates struggling with mental illness. Texas has repeatedly ranked poorly in per-capita spending on mental health services, compared to other states. In the beginning of 2020, Galveston County commissioners approved the establishment of a mental health court in an effort to reform the county’s jail system. This is a move in the right direction towards criminal justice reform, although funding this specialty court has been an issue, with Gov. Greg Abbott’s office recently rejecting grant funding to support the new county court for fiscal year 2021.