On Thursday, the Houston chapter of the NAACP gave Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson a big pat on the back for criminal justice reform.
The organization honored Anderson with its annual Legal Redress Award — and that's largely thanks to her efforts to offer more diversion opportunities to nonviolent offenders. Starting in January, Anderson made it mandatory for all officers to offer its First Chance Intervention Program to first-time, low-level marijuana offenders, which lets them off the hook in exchange for community service. And now, starting this month, she's offered a similar diversion program to first-time offenders caught with less than four grams of a controlled substance. If offenders stay clean for a year while on probation, charges will be dismissed.
At a press conference last month, Anderson called these new plans “a culture change” for Harris County criminal justice.
“I am dedicated to upholding the integrity of this office by fairly enforcing the law and using cutting-edge strategies to ensure public safety,” Anderson said in a statement before yesterday's reception. “Community members, such as the NAACP-Houston, play a crucial role in attaining that goal.”
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But several activists — one of whom was herself a member of the NAACP — took issue with the fact that Anderson was honored at all. Gathered outside the Crowne Plaza Hotel in southwest Houston, they questioned how the NAACP could be giving an award to someone who seemed to join Sheriff Ron Hickman last August in linking Deputy Darren Goforth's murder to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Jinaki Muhammad, national vice co-chair of women's affairs with the National Black United Front, said the NAACP has wrongly made it appear as though the black community endorses Anderson. “Devon Anderson has continued to allow the high rate of black and brown people to continue to be arrested, and be jailed, and now the NAACP, who is supposed to be a voice for the black community, is awarding her with legal excellence,” she said. “They don't speak for the community, and the community does not support Devon Anderson getting awarded at any account. Devon Anderson has not apologized to the Black Lives Matter community, has not apologized to the Black Power community, and has not apologized to anybody about her erroneous statement.”
Right now, 55 percent of the Harris County Jail population serving time for felony drug possession is black — even though African Americans make up just 18 percent of the Harris County population as a whole. Anderson announced last month plans to hire a “community outreach coordinator” to build trust within minority communities and seek solutions for the troubling racial and ethnic disparity in the criminal justice system.
But at a public meeting last week, one man worried the plans were toothless without any concrete resources on the table to make this worthwhile. Plans for what this community outreach coordinator will actually do have yet to be seen.