DA Candidates on Weed: Talking Points Over Data Points

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Though marijuana possession remains a jailable crime in Harris County, the law of the land is shifting toward leniency for offenders. Both contenders in the November race for Harris County District Attorney have presented alternatives to convicting those caught with pot.

DA incumbent Devon Anderson and challenger Kim Ogg agree that the old ways need to change, but they clash on how much. The confusion likely stems from the fact neither candidate has the numbers to back her plan. One lacks a cost-savings analysis, and the other has provided practically useless estimates.

Early this month, Anderson told the Chron about her pilot program that would grant leniency to first-time marijuana offenders. Under that program, set to go into effect this fall, those suspected of marijuana possession would still be arrested and booked. But low-risk, first-time offenders would avoid conviction, and a record, if they completed a class and community service.

Challenger Ogg aims to make use of the 2007 state law that gives individual counties the choice to issue citations and court summons for misdemeanor pot possession instead of arresting and jailing offenders. Though Travis and to some extent Hays counties have implemented this citation authority, Harris County has traditionally erred on the tough-on-nonviolent-crime approach.

"The most important result that she's (Anderson) looking for is to keep low level, first time offenders, people who have never been in trouble before, from entering the revolving door of the criminal justice system," Anderson spokeswoman Sara Kinney told the Press on Tuesday. "This takes a first time offender and hopefully keeps them from being put on a path that leads to more convictions, rather than on a path to a good job, or school." Under current law, anyone with a drug conviction is ineligible for federal student loans or financial aid until they complete a drug rehab program or pass two unannounced drug tests.

Kinney says the plan was drafted after conversations with the Harris County Sheriff's Office and Houston's police chief, but the DA's office currently does not have details on the plan's cost and time savings.

Challenger Ogg argues her opponent's plan would save zero dollars. Harris County's current system of arresting and processing those caught with small amounts of marijuana costs $10 million annually, she claims - and that doesn't factor in the cost to public safety of taking cops away from investigating serious crimes like burglary, rape and murder.

The webpage for her GRACE program provides figures that purport to show the DA's office is currently spending significantly more money prosecuting misdemeanor drug cases than it is tackling felonies like burglary and rape.

Since DA's office doesn't currently calculate the cost for prosecuting each individual charge type, Ogg took the DA's total 2013 budget and divided by the total number of cases filed by the office that same year to arrive at an average cost per case -- about $550. According to the DA's numbers, misdemeanor drug arrests make up almost 12 percent of cases filed by the office last year. Therefore -- according to Ogg's math -- the DA currently spends nearly 12 percent of its budget prosecuting misdemeanor drug cases, about $7 million.

Those are some pretty shaky numbers.

Any responsible analysis must weigh murders and rapes differently from all other charges, said Pablo Ormachea, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine's Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law.

"Murder cases and sexual assault cases cost significantly more to prosecute because they have a much higher burden. [Averaging them into the equation] would not be OK," Ormachea said. He added that if you take out high-cost charges like rape and murder, Ogg's method might work, since less than 5 percent of all Harris County cases actually go to trial. When the accused plea out early in proceedings, prosecutors don't have much work to do.

Nevertheless using $550 as the average cost of prosecuting a crime is "shockingly low," Ormachea said.

On the issues, Anderson's sticking point is that without the threat of arrest, offenders will simply ignore court summons. Ogg says she's still waiting for proof that non-violent, low-risk drug offenders will skip their court dates - "I'd like to see the data."

Yes please.

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