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Moving the focus back to un-crowding the jails

This is a positive development.

Devon Anderson

Newly appointed Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson on Wednesday pledged to curb the increasing number of low-level felons being sentenced to serve misdemeanor time in the county jail rather than going to prison, known as a “12.44a” sentence, saying she will encourage her prosecutors to push rehabilitation.

There has been a more than 30 percent increase this year in the number of state jail felons who receive so-called 12.44a sentences, according to information kept by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which Harris County created in 2009 to improve the justice system and reduce jail overcrowding.

The increase has been identified by the council as one of several reasons that the population of the Harris County Jail – the state’s largest lock-up – has escalated this year to the point of being close to capacity again.

Those types of convictions include so-called “trace cases,” where people are arrested for possessing less than 1/100th of a gram of crack cocaine.

Anderson’s husband, the late District Attorney Mike Anderson, who took office in January and died of cancer last month, sparked speculation that the jail population would increase when he decided to prosecute trace cases as felonies. His predecessor, Patricia Lykos, treated the cases as misdemeanors, saying it was difficult to accurately test drug residue and took officers off the streets for too long. She also claimed it helped reduce the jail population.

Devon Anderson on Wednesday, attending her first coordinating council meeting since being appointed as her husband’s replacement about two weeks ago, said she was “not alarmed” by the number of state jail felony filings this year, which have not increased substantially.

“What I was alarmed about was the 12.44a disposals,” she said. “Creating a class of felons, first offenders, about 800 people who have never been in trouble… now have felony convictions because of the 12.44a punishment. That is what we’re going to address. “

She continued: “I’m a former drug court judge and I’m very interested in rehabilitation and that is what I’m going to encourage my prosecutors to work on, to identify people whether they’re first offenders or if they have prior drug felonies and no violent priors, to try to get them to enter treatment. As a former defense attorney, I know that there are some people who just (say), ‘I don’t want to be on paper, I don’t want treatment, I want to go right back on the streets.’ Well, the problem is they come right back to the jail. So we need to work with defense lawyers and judges. We all need to get unified on this and try to get treatment and to try to stop the revolving door.”

Anderson had previously told the Chronicle she would continue her husband’s trace case policy, but would look at whether they are “giving a disproportionate number of state jail felons county time.”

See here and here for some background. Anderson’s position seems a bit muddled to me, but maybe that’s just because I don’t know what “12.44a” means. Is there some other class of felony that isn’t a trace case but is a “12.44a” that’s been trending up and causing an increase in the local inmate population? You lawyers out there, please chime in on this. Be that as it may, the fact that Anderson is acknowledging the problem and her office’s role in it, that’s a positive sign. Assuming she’s not putting up a smokescreen, then there’s a path forward from here.

On a tangential note because I didn’t get around to blogging it earlier, there was a story in the Chron about what the new public defender’s office has been pu to.

Harris County’s recently created public defender system is seeing positive results, including an uptick in dismissed cases for Houston’s mentally ill, according to a report released Tuesday by the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

“It says we provide a lot of value to the system,” Alex Bunin, the county’s chief public defender, said of the results.

Those results include dismissal rates that are five times higher for mentally ill misdemeanor suspects than similar defendants with appointed attorneys.

The office, which began in 2011 with a state grant funding the first four years, handles about 6 percent of the county’s indigent trial-level cases. The rest of the indigent cases are handled by private attorneys appointed by one of the county’s 40 criminal court judges.

In general, the report found that the public defender’s office does more investigation, which leads to better results in court, advocates for the defense bar in community issues and offers free training, mentoring and advice that was not available before.

Those courtroom results include a greater proportion of dismissals, deferred sentences and acquittals. The report also pointed out that the office sees a smaller proportion of “guilty” verdicts than appointed lawyers. Overall, the public defender office secured acquittals at three times the rate of appointed or hired attorneys, according to the report.

Pretty good so far. There are some complaints in the story from Jared Woodfill about the cost of the PDO, but Woodfill benefited greatly from the old system of judicial appointments of defense counsel for indigent defendants, so take his comments with a grain of salt. Grits has more.

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