Alternatives to jail time for non-violent drug offenders

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Getting caught with drugs in Texas can land you a spot behind bars, but there is a push at the state capitol to change the law.

Tuesday the corrections committee will meet to consider changing the incarceration rules. The committee could study the incarceration rates for non-violent drug offenses and the cost to the state. The group is looking at alternatives ways to deal with the issue including community supervision.

Lauren Johnson supports the move. She started using drugs at the age of 14 and by 21, she was getting into trouble and has since been to jail several times. But she says putting a non-violent drug offender behind bars is the wrong thing to do; she thinks part of the problem is stigmatizing people like her.

“So when we are talking about offenders, we are dehumanizing an entire class of people and when we really think about it 1 in 3 people having a criminal history at this point in time we are becoming a majority of people in the United States. Is it safer to have better policies that are inclusive of everybody or is it better to demonize and dehumanize those people?” Johnson said.

Johnson does not want to be labeled as an “ex-drug offender” and says her family has suffered from the entire experience. She even gave birth to her son while in jail.

“Whatever your stance on legalization is, we could probably agree that criminalization of drug use is a failure, it’s not helping anybody. We’re throwing a bunch of money into it, and at the end of the day, it’s a waste of money,” Johnson said.

Doug Smith with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition believes personal possession of drugs should be deemed a misdemeanor; it is currently a felony. He says the area needs more resources for probation because people are doing drugs when they are released and going right back to jail.

“We spent $67 million dollars each year of those 2 years to incarcerate those individuals. That $67 million could have been spent to provide drug treatment to give them community supervision, to help them to find work,” Smith said.

Not everyone is on board with the move. AJ Louderback from the Sheriff’s Association of Texas agrees more work on probation could be a good thing if it’s done right but does not think making a felony charge a misdemeanor is the right way to go about it.

“We are dealing with an unprecedented number of folks who have been involved with criminal activity who now are potentially going to be in our communities again,” Louderback said

The corrections committee hearing starts at 9:30 at the Capitol. It will be open for public testimony.

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