Fast-Track Diversion

Harris County experiments with a new sentencing tool in cocaine cases

Last week I put somebody in a program that doesn't exist yet," joked state district Judge Mike Wilkenson in mid-March. At the time, Wilkenson and district court Judge Doug Shaver were still trying to come up with a name for what they now call the Fast-Track Drug Diversion and Treatment Program (DDT) -- the latest alternative sentencing idea aimed at freeing up prison beds for violent criminals and placing drug abusers into extensive rehabilitation treatment.

So far, Wilkenson is the only judge involved in the pilot program, even though it's been under development for almost 18 months. In February, he placed two men into a state-funded residential treatment center in connection with the plan.

"This is still in the planning stage," says Wilkenson. "We need to create some statistics. And to determine what is success. Is success that they haven't been re-arrested? Basically, we're talking about nobody being able to get out of the program unless they have a full-time job, a stable place to live and no arrests in the interim."

The judge couldn't say how much the program would cost if it was implemented county-wide, but considering the alternative of building even more prisons, Wilkenson believes that the experiment is reasonable. Even Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes has been quoted as giving his qualified support to such a program.

Indeed, last month the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council predicted that the state will have to construct enough new prisons to house almost 60,000 additional inmates by the end of the decade if present sentencing patterns and policies continue. The TCJPC report also concluded that without new taxes, the prison program will require the state to cut back on other services. This problem, much of it the result of drug cases, has officials looking at other avenues for dealing with first offenders -- who, according to figures from the Harris County Pretrial Services Agency, last year made up more than 44 percent of the almost 55,000 people who went through the county courts system.

Wilkenson says the option of participating in the program he's experimenting with will be offered only to non-violent offenders who are deemed to have a good chance of rehabilitation. "The idea is to target the people that we can help," says the judge. "There are a lot of people in the system who are capable of being treated. And then there are a lot of people who should just be flat locked up. But jail beds are a scarce resource. And if we can keep some [prisoners] from becoming second and third offenders simply by treating their addiction, we're going to be ahead of the game. It's going to cost a little bit more -- maybe -- on the front end. But on the back end it's going to be cost-effective."

For example, according to Judge Norman Lanford, Harris County could save a lot of time and space by changing the way it deals with so-called "trace" cocaine cases. "In 1991, I was noticing a large number of minuscule cocaine cases," recalls Lanford, who serves as a visiting judge in various parts of the state. Lanford says a study he commissioned revealed that 6 percent of his docket consisted of cocaine cases in which the only drug actually found was residue on a pipe.

"And if my court was standard, then Harris County sent 822 people to prison in 1991, for an average of eight and a half years apiece, for trace amounts of cocaine," says Lanford. "In Beaumont and Texarkana, these are filed as misdemeanor [paraphernalia] cases. If they were filed as misdemeanors in this county, 822 prison beds would be made available for violent people."

Wilkenson has no quarrel with Lanford's figures. He does point out, though, that because of changes in state law, after September 1 of this year cases involving trace amounts of drugs will carry a maximum sentence of two years. Still, he agrees that there are alternative sentencing plans available in Harris County that aren't being used simply because some judges and defense attorneys are unaware of them.

"I'm not interested in this because I'm some kind of bleeding heart," says Wilkenson. "I want to make sure there are jail beds for [violent] people that I need to put there. But there are a lot of people we can take out of the existing system. We're over-dependent on incarceration. If they're not a risk to the rest of the citizenry out there, then fine, make sure they do their restitution. But get them into some kind of treatment.

 
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