If you get a Travis County court-appointed attorney for a drug charge, you’re more likely to go to jail, especially if you’re African-American or Hispanic.

That’s part of a new report presented to the Travis County Commissioners Court Tuesday by the Council of State Governments Justice Center. 

According to the report, fewer people overall are getting booked into jail for crimes. Over the last five years, the jail bookings into Travis County decreased by 14 percent. 

However, there’s an outlier: Bookings for state jail felony drug possession charges jumped up 34 percent, and a disproportionate number of those serving time are black or Hispanic. 

The report shows it has less to do with race than it does poverty and poor representation by court-appointed attorneys.

Travis County pays private attorneys to take cases when the defendant can’t afford to pay. Those results aren’t very good.

According to the report presented, 80 percent of people in the past five years were found guilty on drug charges if they used a court-appointed attorney. If they paid for their own attorney, only 48 percent were found guilty on drug charges.

Many in the criminal justice world say this information is nothing new but getting a government like Travis County to recognize it and do something about it is rare. 

You can’t arrest your way out of the drug problem, says Scott Henson, a policy wonk at Just Liberty and author of the criminal justice blog, Grits for Breakfast

“A drug problem of this magnitude [existing] this many decades after Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs tells you that…. we don’t know what we’re doing,” said Henson.

Tony Fabelo wrote the study for Travis County and the Justice Center. He says the most important factor is having a court-appointed lawyer take up your case versus paying for a private one yourself.

“It’s like anything else, when you have money you can buy a bigger house, a better car, you know, with air conditioning. As opposed to a beat-up car with no air conditioning,” said Fabelo.

Although that’s a measure of income, not race, blacks and Hispanics are more likely to get a court-appointed lawyer for drug cases.

Travis County will now look into changing its criminal defense program later this year.

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