When Harris County District Attorney Mike Anderson toppled incumbent Pat Lykos in last year’s Republican primary, some county budget hawks got fidgety.
The campaign’s central issue, after all, was Anderson’s opposition to a Lykos policy that treated cases with drug residue of less than 1/100th of a gram as misdemeanors. Lykos was ignoring the law, said Anderson, who has announced he will prosecute these “trace cases” as felonies.
That trail, of course, leads to the county jail, which at $178 million is the single largest line item in the county’s $1.5 billion annual budget. The sheriff’s office has come in under budget two years in a row, thanks in large part to a drop in the jail population, which, at 8,711 as of Thursday, is about 29 percent below its recent peak of 12,188 in September 2008.
Commissioner Jack Cagle and other county officials admit to concern about whether the policy change will drive up the jail population, but all say they view Anderson as a reasonable guy who will strike a balance. In Anderson’s first three months in office, there is no evidence of an increase in the jail numbers, according to data from the sheriff’s department.
If the police make an arrest and a lab confirms a positive for illegal drugs, Anderson said, the law requires him to prosecute. However, Anderson said, his time as a drug court judge taught him that treatment, not jail time, often is the best route.
“I have seen people that were dealing with addiction for 10 or 15 years and just lived in horrible conditions because of the addiction. Through treatment, they’re able to get their lives back and become productive members of society,” he said. “Being creative on the punishment end of things is not against the law. We can find some way to actually deal with treatment in these areas rather than incarceration, and that’s a lot less expensive.”
“It hasn’t been very long ago that we finally decided that just because you’re being smart on crime does not mean you’re being weak on crime,” he continued. “We need to use the best tools that we have, and treatment is a very good tool.”
I’ve expressed my concerns about this before. Anderson addressed the issue with me in the interview I did with him before last year’s primary, and I’m glad to see that so far at least he has not caused any recurrence of the overpopulation problem as a result of this shift in policy. It’s early days, of course, but so far so good. I hope this trend continues, and I hope that if it doesn’t everyone remembers where the responsibility for it lies.