Texas Ponders Pot Laws to Save Prison Space

Texas (search) spent the past decade earning a tough-on-crime reputation, and Republicans and Democrats alike are now finding ways to maintain it while still making sure to leave space for hard criminals in state prisons.

Texas has spent billions of dollars building more facilities, and since the early 1990s has doubled the number of inmates to 155,000 men and women in its 18 prisons. It was part of a national trend to lengthen prison sentences, mandatory minimum punishments and toughen drug laws.

But now, some lawmakers are trying to rewrite crime laws — not to be lenient with criminals but to save money and prison space.

"I think it's incumbent upon us, though, to spend the next 10 years being smart on crime, as opposed to being tough on crime and dumb on Texas taxpayers," said Texas state Rep. Harold Dutton.

Dutton, a Democrat, wants to avoid another costly prison-building binge. His solution: rewrite some sentencing laws, beginning with marijuana. Dutton's bill would dramatically change the punishment for possessing up to 2 ounces of pot — the equivalent of about 50 joints. Instead of going to prison, an offender would get a ticket with a fine. Prison beds would be saved for harder criminals.

"People that are just causing this system, causing all of us, to be afraid ... that's who we want you to focus it on," Dutton said. "People walking around here with a joint of marijuana (search) ...we ought not be criminalizing that."

The Texas House is expected to vote on the bill soon.

Republican state lawmaker Pat Haggerty said 2 ounces of pot may be too large to push through the legislature, but he agrees with the concept. He said strong consensus exists to keep first-time drug offenders out of prison, especially since it costs $15,000 a year to house an inmate.

"This is being tougher on [criminals], by making them go through the programming rather than just serving some short sentence and letting them back on the street in the same condition they were in when they were nabbed," Haggerty said.

The "smart on crime" concept would rely even more on drug courts (search) and rehabilitation instead of incarceration. A Southern Methodist University study on Dallas' drug court found that for every $1 in taxpayer money spent on that method, the state saved $9.

Click on the video box above for a complete report by FOX News' Phil Keating.