A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a little piece about the extremely long sentences that I have seen come from Smith County (Tyler). In that article, I wrote that I was soon going to interview a man who had received a life sentence for possession of a controlled substance. Well, I conducted the interview at his prison unit last week, and now I can say with certainty that the insanity of the sentence is even more unimaginable than I had initially guessed. So unimaginable, in fact, that I am sitting on a couch on Christmas day thinking about this guy over at the Coffield Unit who is looking at a lifetime of prison, and if he’s lucky, he can hope for a post prison lifetime being on parole.
This man, we’ll call him John, is a thirty something black man from Dallas who was driving down the highway through Smith County on his way to East Texas. He was pulled over for supposedly not signalling his lane change. When the officer took the driver’s license and proof of insurance from John, the officer went back to his patrol car and ran his criminal background, as they always do. I’m sure the officer also noticed John’s gold teeth.
After the officer saw that John was on probation in Dallas for possession of a small quantity of ecstasy pills, and that John had previously been incarcerated for two separate counts of possession of a controlled substance, the officer decided to take a closer look. He searched the vehicle, and no drugs were found. However, in the cup holder, John had a convenience store soda cup with ice and soda inside. The officer smelled the drink, and he asked John what was in it. John replied that it was diet soda, which it was. However, John had mixed some codeine based cough syrup into the diet soda. The officer smelled the drink and knew the cup held more than diet soda. So, he called for back up, and John was promptly arrested.
When John was at the police station, he admitted that the cup had codeine based cough syrup mixed with the diet soda, and that he did not have a prescription for the cough syrup. John was, therefore, guilty of possession of a controlled substance, yet again. Anyone who knows anything about probation, would know that John was going to get his probation in Dallas County revoked because of the new charge in Smith County. That is, in fact, what happened. John’s deferred adjudication probation was revoked and a Dallas Judge sentenced him to 14 years in TDCJ. But alas, Smith County wasn’t through with John.
Smith County charged John as a habitual offender, which resulted in them enhancing the severity of the crime and the possible punishment. After being offered no less than 40 years from the prosecutor, John entered an open plea, which gave the Judge the right to pick the length of the sentence. John got 99 years, (a life sentence under Texas law). That codeine laced soft drink in John’s car is now costing the taxpayers of Texas $25,000 per year, for however long John remains a prisoner in TDCJ, and it will cost the taxpayers another $3,000 per year while John is on parole, assuming they ever let him out of prison.
I know John’s case probably seems like it must be a fluke, and that people with a drug problem and nothing more do not normally get a life sentence. Maybe, but in my opinion, the “fluke” is not as uncommon as you might suspect. I base my conclusion on the fact that there are over 156,000 people serving time in TDCJ, and I only get to meet a very very small percentage of them each year. Therefore, if I’ve come across a few “John” situations each and every year, there are likely to be thousands more who do not have loved ones seeking the services of a qualified parole attorney.
I don’t know how many times it will take to convince the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to allow John to leave prison, but for John’s sake, I hope he doesn’t end up spending too many more Christmases behind bars. Incidentally, John’s never been sent through any drug treatment program and he’s never committed a violent crime in his life.
Merry Christmas John.