New Laws Could Reclassify Some Crimes For Lower Penalties

In a development that could have big benefits for thousands of Texans, several organizations are asking legislators to reconsider how the state punishes certain crimes. Texas statutes known as the Texas Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure govern what penalties apply for certain crimes. The proposed changes could reduce the number of crimes that result in prison sentences.

It has been 20 years since Texas undertook serious changes to its criminal laws. At that point, the entire country's criminal justice mindset was largely focused on prison as the penalty for most offenses.

Now, however, many legal experts recognize a big need to find smarter ways to handle criminal penalties. This means sending fewer people to prison but also reducing the number of current inmates. For example, many areas of the state use alternative court systems to focus on helping defendants avoid future problems. Some drunk driving and drug crimes cases end up in these specialized courts.

Texas has more prison inmates than any other states - in 2012, 152,000 people were in the state's facilities. Under the current law, many of these Texans are serving terms for relatively minor crimes. For example, possession of marijuana is currently a Class B misdemeanor - a prison sentence is one possible penalty.

Until the state takes meaningful steps to recalibrate the criminal code, these disproportionate and dangerous penalties will remain all too common. It is important for defendants to consult with an experienced lawyer early on in a case.

Source: Star-Telegram, "Bills aimed at lowering criminal penalties," Mitch Mitchell, Feb. 11, 2013

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