Jordan Smith, author of the column Reefer Madness, writes an excellent piece in this week’s Austin Chronicle about Texas’ unreasonable parole system, and a pending lawsuit that seeks to change it.

The actual parole rate for Texas non-violent inmates is substantially lower than the “recommended” rate. Translation? Folks convicted of felony offenses in Texas are serving higher and higher percentages of their sentences, even when they accumulate substantial good-time credit. Many serve their full sentence, despite all of their “good-time credit”.

“Mandatory Release”, which is what it is still called, has not been mandatory since 1996. Mandatory Release on parole used to happen when an inmate’s good time credit, plus his actual time served equaled his sentence.

A plain English typical example: hypothetical defendant is sentenced to 4 years prison for possession of 2 grams of cocaine. After 2 real years in prison, the inmate has accrued 2 years of good conduct time as well (meaning he has not violated any prison rules, has participated in vocational programs etc.)

His total time then would be 2 real years + 2 good time credit years, for a total of 4 years. Under the pre-1996 laws, he would be released on parole automatically (assuming he hadn’t previously qualified for parole). He would still have to serve 2 more years of supervision, report to a parole officer, be subject to drug testing, participate in aftercare, etc. But he would be released – and thus cost the taxpayers a lot less money as well.

Under the current system, however, mandatory release is discretionary. That’s right. Mandatory = discretionary.

Smith quotes parole attorney Bill Habern on the current state of Texas Parole law:

“I’ve never seen such a dysfunctional system as exists in Texas” – a system that allows the parole board to become a “bully.” “They’ve been bullies so long that they’re just used to it.”

But it’s not the individual members that are the problem, he says; it’s the system they work under.

“It’s not the members of the team playing on the field,” that slant things, he says. “It’s the field,” that’s slanted.

And remember, we’re not talking murder, robbery, sexual assault here. Those offenses were never eligible for mandatory release under the old rules. We’re talking primarily about drug possession cases.