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The debate over handling drug cases in the DA race

An update from the Chron.

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

Incumbent Devon Anderson and challenger Kim Ogg have somewhat similar thoughts on dealing with misdemeanor marijuana possession, but are on polar opposites when it comes to trace amounts of crack cocaine, a perennial debate in Harris County.

On marijuana, both are proposing a diversion program, which offers the opportunity for offenders to avoid conviction and jail time.

Earlier this month, Anderson, a Republican, released to the Houston Chronicle general contours of a pilot plan for first-time marijuana offenders, which is still being developed with the Houston Police Department, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and other county law enforcement offices.

The biggest difference between Anderson’s plan and the one announced last month by Ogg is whether those caught with the drug will be arrested and taken into custody.

Ogg also says her plan will save taxpayers millions.

[...]

The benefit to Ogg’s plan, advocates said, is keeping police officers on the street instead of spending time bringing in low-level offenders.

“It doesn’t make sense for people who are going to be released anyway to be driven across the county,” said Joe Ptak, who heads Texans Smart on Crime, a group working to implement “Cite & Summons” across the state. “Having police on patrol is the most effective way to protect communities, and Cite & Summons gives communities the opportunity to do that.”

Under Anderson’s plan, scheduled to go into effect this fall, every suspect will be taken to a police substation, where they will be booked in to the system and evaluated.

If deemed a low-risk, first-time offender, the person will be eligible for the program, which dismisses the case pending completion of community service and possibly, classroom instruction. If the requirements are successfully completed, no conviction appears on the person’s record.

Repeat offenders and those with prior convictions will be booked into jail and will not be eligible for the program.

“The new program still allows for the police to make an arrest,” Anderson said in an email response to questions. A former felony court judge who presided over a drug court docket.

Under both plans, those who fail to comply with any of the requirements would be charged with the original case and arrested.

Ogg unveiled her plan last month, though she has been talking about it for a lot longer than that. I’m glad to see that DA Devon Anderson is partially on board with the idea, but 1) carting arrestees to police substations isn’t really that much of a savings in time and effort over hauling them downtown, and 2) given that Anderson was originally opposed to making any changes in handling pot cases, you have to give Ogg credit for changing the nature of the debate. She’s been the leader here, Anderson is trying to catch up.

And the election will raise again the different opinions on handling trace amounts of crack cocaine.

If elected, Ogg said, her first order of business will be to stop accepting criminal charges for people caught with cocaine residue in their mouths, on crack pipes and on other drug paraphernalia. The so-called “trace case” policy has see-sawed among the DAs. In 2012, GOP challenger Mike Anderson unseated incumbent Pat Lykos in part by attacking her policy of issuing misdemeanor tickets instead of arresting drug users for felonies in cases where police found tiny amounts of cocaine residue.

The issue was especially important to law enforcement agencies in 2012 and hinges on whether police officers should spend time and resources taking crack addicts to jail to be prosecuted.

He had argued that arresting low-level drug users was an effective tool for police to go after kingpins and high-level drug dealers. He also said it reduces crimes like burglaries, especially car break-ins, a position that was widely embraced by law enforcement unions.

Anderson reversed Lykos’ policy shortly after taking office. His wife, who was appointed to the post after his death last year, adopted his stance.

“How the courts and (assistant district attorneys) handle these cases in court can help address the offender’s problem with addiction,” Anderson said in a written response. She said her administration offers treatment options and deferred adjudication when appropriate.

As you know, I support the trace case policy, first implemented by Pat Lykos. I don’t believe ditching that policy has led to better outcomes, and I don’t believe being hardnosed about it is worth the cost. Ogg is also quite correct to point out the disparate effect that trace case arrests have on people of color. She’s on the leading edge of the trend, and I support the direction she wants to go.

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