11:30 a.m. September 15, 2016: This story has been updated to reflect that arrests made were not just through the Harris County Sheriff's Office.
If you live in Harris County, make less than $80,000 a year and happen to smoke weed, you might want to look into getting a lawyer. More than 98 percent of the people arrested for low-level weed possession
by the Harris County Sheriff's Office live in areas where household income is typically below $80,000, according to HCSO arrest records analyzed by Jeff Reichman of the local technology consulting firm January Advisors.
Specifically, out of more than 1,000 cases where people were arrested for possessing less than two ounces of marijuana, only 17 cases involved people who lived in regions where the average household income is $80,000 and up. With odds like that, it makes us wonder: What did the people in those 17 cases have to do in order to be actually arrested?
Reichman didn't analyze Harris County's marijuana arrests looking for income disparity. Instead, he wanted to measure the impact that the First Chance Intervention Program, a diversion initiative aimed to keep people caught with small amounts of weed out of jail, is actually having on the county. If you're a non-violent, first-time offender caught with less than two ounces of marijuana, police officers across Harris County are required to offer you the chance to avoid an arrest by enrolling. The program was designed not only to keep people from re-offending, but to conserve valuable police resources and manpower.
“I was just curious as to how many arrests there were,” Reichman said, “knowing that this is something that is an issue in the upcoming election.”
Using a coded script, Reichman collected arrest records from the
HSCO Harris County Jail Information Management System website every day for the first six months of 2016. He ended up with a database of 128 days' worth of records, including 1,157 arrests that were prompted by possession for less than two ounces of marijuana. Reichman then plotted those arrests into an interactive map that tracks offenders' addresses.
A red dot signifies where someone who was arrested lives. The redder the dot, the more people live at that address. (If you're confused by the number of people who apparently live at City Hall, that's the address Reichman assigned to people who were homeless.) Reichman also used census data to map out areas in Harris County where the median household income was $80,000 and over.
Those regions show up as a blue overlay on the map: The deeper blue an area is, the wealthier it is. While red dot clusters appear in lower-income areas like the Third Ward, Fifth Ward and Gulfton, the map is actually made more striking by the fact that the red dots are everywhere – except in wealthy regions. Places like Memorial and Bellaire are almost completely free of any dots.
“I wasn't surprised, but there's so much that goes into police work that it's really hard to look at something like this and draw conclusions,” Reichman said, explaining that his goal is just to represent what's happening accurately. “It's a lot easier to look at something like this and start asking better questions.”
Reichman's data doesn't look at whether these arrests involve first-time offenders because that's not something typically recorded in arrest data, he said. But, “Clearly, the Sheriff's Office is still arresting people for marijuana,” Reichman said.
More research would be needed to determine if the First Chance Diversion Program actually makes a dent in the number of people arrested for marijuana possession, or if police officers are even really offering people the chance to enroll. That's been an issue in the past – as we wrote in 2014, officers used to be able to simply decide not to offer the program to people they caught with marijuana.
An arrest for possession can have enormous consequences on somebody's life, as we detailed in our story on Rebecca Kennedy and Trevon Chapman, who basically lost everything after police officers found pot in their car. They did not offer the couple – Kennedy, at least, was a first-time offender – the option to enter the First Chance program, but instead just arrested them.
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Reichman's analysis far from definitive, he admits, but that's okay. Reichman doesn't want to make a statement. Rather, he wants to start a discussion about how to fix Harris County's drug issues. “Just understanding the data is a first step,” he said, adding, “As long as they look at the data and as long we're having a conversation about substantive facts, then I'm happy.”
As of press time, the Harris County Sheriff's Office did not return requests for comment on marijuana arrests or the First Chance Intervention Program.
Update: Ryan Sullivan of the Harris County Sheriff Office's called us this morning to point out our error. The arrest statistics Reichman used were not from just the sheriff's office, but were drawn from all law enforcement departments operating in Harris County.
The Houston Press regrets the error.