DA Ogg, Police Leaders Announce Landmark Marijuana Diversion Program

District Attorney Kim Ogg and heads of local law enforcement announced Thursday that, starting March 1, all police agencies in Harris County will no longer arrest people caught with four ounces or less of marijuana, and the DA's office will no longer be prosecuting those cases.

The remarkable move, which Ogg had championed throughout her 2016 campaign, pushes the third largest county in the nation to the forefront of marijuana reform in places where it is still illegal. Harris County will join only the Brooklyn County District Attorney's Office in New York in choosing to divert misdemeanor marijuana defendants away from jail entirely, saving taxpayers millions of dollars and saving thousands of people the lifelong burden of a criminal record.

Instead of being arrested and hauled off to jail, low-level potheads and casual smokers will instead be asked to take a four-hour decision-making class, at a cost of $150 (exceptions will be made for indigent people). Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and Mayor Sylvester Turner joined Ogg in developing the landmark policy. It replaces former district attorney Devon Anderson's First Chance Diversion Program, which only applied to first-time offenders caught with less than two ounces, which Ogg had criticized as being too narrow.

“At 107,000 cases over the last ten years, we have spent in excess of $250 million dollars collectively prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety,” Ogg said. “Additionally, the collateral damage to our workforce is immeasurable — because what we have done is we have disqualified, unnecessarily, thousands of people from greater job, housing and education opportunities by giving them a criminal record for what is in effect a minor law violation.”

The DA's office will still continue to prosecute misdemeanor marijuana offenders in specific circumstances which include: getting caught with weed in a drug-free zone, such as a school zone; in a correctional facility; or if they are already out on bond, on probation or deferred adjudication for another case. Juveniles are ineligible.

Ogg said a major impetus behind the policy change was the realization that police and courts were expending an incredible amount of resources — a total of $26 million per year — on arresting, jailing, and prosecuting stoners, taking away valuable time and money from fighting violent crime. The largest expenses come from inside the jail. Every year, taxpayers spend around $13 million to house 8,000 to 10,000 suspects, as they stay in jail for six to eight days on average, at around $65 per day.

“The problem is, some people stay a lot longer than the average of six days,” Ogg said. “Now, if you have a job, if you have children in child care, if you have home responsibilities to a parent, these six days can change your life. And once that criminal record attaches, that will change your life forever — and not for the better.”

According to county data, the prosecution and court-appointed defense of misdemeanor marijuana defendants cost a combined $7.3 million, taking up roughly 10 percent of Harris County court dockets. Crime labs are also overburdened testing loads of drugs for every case in the system, while rape cases and other violent crimes requiring DNA testing pile up. Eliminating misdemeanor marijuana cases from their docket is estimated to save nearly $1.8 million per year.

And for police, it's expected to free up more time to tackle violent crime. Arresting someone for pot possession, taking them to jail and booking them can take patrol officers an estimated four hours, which according to data provided by the county costs police an estimated $1.3 million per year. Meanwhile, as Acevedo has said, there's a home invasion underway.

“What somebody characterized as being soft on crime, we're being smart on crime. We're being focused on crime,” Acevedo said. “We're focusing on what's important to the people of this community, which is life, limb, and their property.”

While leading the Austin Police Department, Acevedo was among the very first Texas chiefs to implement cite and release, which allowed police to write low-level defendants a citation rather than arresting them. After implementing the policy, he said political blowback from tough-on-crime critics was inevitable — but that the department ultimately reduced crime by, he says, 40 percent from 2007 to 2015.

Before Ogg even released the policy, similar critics already started accusing Ogg and Harris County law enforcement of being softies and creating a “sanctuary for dope smokers,” as Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon put it. Ironically, Ligon accused Ogg of “focusing her attention on the issue of legalization of marijuana” instead of on tackling violent crime... which is sort of the point of the policy. Ogg responded at Thursday's press conference saying it would be wise of public officials to actually read the policy first before criticizing it.

Meanwhile, criminal justice reform advocates in Houston and abroad praised Ogg's policy as “an important first step towards creating a more sensible, fair and humane justice system,” said Jessica Brand, legal director of the Fair Punishment Project.

Closing out the afternoon, Harris County commissioner Rodney Ellis said that criminal-justice reform was the new civil-rights movement of this generation, and that he hoped in 20 years Harris County would be remembered for leading the charge.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn