Defense attorney critic of drug war


Justice can be darned elusive.

Houston attorney Russell M. Webb has been playing hide-and-seek with it for more than a quarter of a century, first as a prison guard, then as a parole officer, then as an officer presiding over parole revocation hearings, and for the past 11 years as a criminal defense lawyer.

He can tell many stories similar to the one about a 40-year-old fellow who was arrested several years ago outside a public housing project after a police officer saw him throw down something shiny. The cop found a piece of glass on the ground containing a speck that tested as cocaine.

First time around ended with a hung jury and mistrial. Second time, the fellow was found guilty. Judge hit him with a 20-year sentence, no doubt based on the fact the fellow had a previous conviction for drug possession.

He also was an experienced pipe fitter, having worked 20 years in the business. Webb said it is difficult for him to find any justice behind sending this guy to prison and keeping him there. "Texas is sending hundreds of people to prison every week for possession of controlled substances," Webb said. "Drug addicts, essentially. Small amounts of drugs."

Public unaware of prison life

Once they are in there is no telling when they might get out. Webb said he finds few people among the general public who know very much about how someone may be kept in the pen.

"The prison personnel, usually the guard close to the action, can write up an inmate for a prison infraction," Webb said. "After a kangaroo trial, in which the inmate is denied counsel, a sanction called `loss of class' is or can be imposed."

Webb said the parole board refuses to review the inmate for parole until he is "promoted back to the same class he was in when he entered prison. The promotion process takes a year or more."

Webb, who often represents inmates seeking parole, said a prisoner's rights and an attorney's options are extremely limited in those situations.

He said a prisoner gets no access to his parole board file, doesn't know what it contains, and thus has no opportunity to respond to any claims, letters, reports or statements that may prevent his release. It was while attending Sam Houston State University in Huntsville that Webb took a job during his senior year as a guard at the Walls Unit. He continued working there for two years after graduating with a major in criminology and corrections.

Back then, the state prison system had only 13 units spread throughout the state, he said. Now, there are more than 50 state prisons, as well as several additional privately operated hoosegows that contain inmates from our Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Frustrated in seeking justice

Webb has met and defended many people who have been taken prisoner in the war on drugs. He often is frustrated when trying to find the justice, not just in each individual case, but also in the effects of the combined total.

He said that over the years he has observed that police fight more drug-war battles in the poor minority neighborhoods than in the more affluent suburbs. He is convinced the reason for this is not because there are no drug users and dealers in the suburbs, but because it is easier to bust the poor.

A poor black guy busted for possession is more likely to go down easy. He can't afford to fight back. He accepts a plea bargain and does some time. Webb said one result of the lopsided drug war is that, because such a high percentage of black males now have felony records and can't vote, it has diluted the political power of blacks.

Another result is that, because they are not allowed to serve as jurors, it is becoming increasingly difficult to put together a balanced jury when another black man goes to trial on drug charges. As frustrating as it is, however, Webb said he intends to continue seeking justice and generally working to improve the system. Specifically, he said he is joining the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, a Houston-based organization that advocates replacing the drug war and prison sentences with "better and more effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs and drug-related activities."

Thom Marshall's e-mail address is thom.marshall@chron.com