Absurd East Texas Sentence

Texas is facing about an $18 billion deficit in its budget. There has been much talk of closing some Texas prisons to ease the budget shortfall. However, as long as Texas judges and juries continue to hand out large sentences in non-violent cases, closing some prisons might be a little difficult.

The following is from Grits for Breakfast – March 7, 2010 (the author is from Tyler, Texas). This story is not rare–it happens all over Texas. The Amarillo area is no exception.

Absurdist 35-year pot sentence a home town embarrassment

This absurdist sentence from my hometown embodies much of what’s wrong with today’s justice system, even if I partially disagree with this writer’s diagnosis at the Houston Press’ Hairballs blog of the offender’s biggest error.

“Smith County (East Texas) judges and juries have long had a reputation of meting out severe, some might say ridiculous, punishment for drug convictions. And Henry Wooten’s case is no exception: the 54-year-old Tyler man was sentenced Thursday to 35 years in prison for possessing slightly more than four ounces of pot. Wooten actually got off easy — the prosecutor asked the jury to give him 99 years. (We just hope TDCJ can free up room for this menace to society; maybe the state can release a child molester or serial arsonist to find a cell for Wooten.)”

While the sentence may be asinine, we can’t help but feel Wooten brought much of this upon himself — mostly by choosing to be both a pothead and live in Tyler, when clearly that calls for an either/or scenario.

Hard to know what these people are thinking: Next time you read in the newspaper that a violent offender was released from TDCJ and immediately began committing serious crimes, think of this case and Mr. Wooten filling a prison cell needed for actually dangerous people. And since he’s 54, TDCJ is getting him just when (according to averages) his health care costs are about to go up dramatically. This whole war on marijuana is really working out well, don’t you think?

One also notes that this ridiculous sentence resulted from yet another blowhard prosecutor demanding to a jury that they send a message, arguing for a 99-year max sentence in the case for 4.6 ounces of marijuana (just over a quarter-pound) on the grounds that,”Every decision made by a jury sets a precedent.” I suppose that’s true, in a sense, if he meant establishing the precedent of Smith County being considered a laughingstock full of hypocritical, hyperpunitive jurors and prosecutors who almost seem to perform parody versions of their roles.

I can only add that, if my experience growing up in Tyler was any indication, there’d be a lot more white youth from the city’s south side filling up TDCJ beds if that kind of sentence were routinely applied across the board. I haven’t seen a photo of Mr. Wooten, but I don’t need to in order to tell you he’s almost certainly black. The sentence and the charging decisions that led to it tell you that much. In that sense, Hairballs was only partially right about Wooten’s geographic error: This is north Tyler justice, such as it is – a precedent that was set a long time ago. What an embarrassment.