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Harris County Plans To Be Nicer to People Charged With Drug and Non-Violent Crimes

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Drug offenders in Harris County are about to catch a break—or at least have a greater chance of avoiding jail time.

On Thursday, Harris County criminal justice officials announced plans to offer rehab to repeat drug offenders caught with less than one gram of a controlled substance, and, starting in February, a diversion program to first-time offenders caught with less than four grams. That program, called Felony Pretrial Intervention, puts first-timers on probation for a year, during which they'll be offered various treatment opportunities. If they stay clean by the year's end, prosecutors dismiss the charges. 

These system-wide changes are among several that officials announced Thursday as part of their overarching goal to reduce the county jail population. This week, they submitted these plans in a proposal to the MacArthur Foundation, in hopes of winning a $2 million grant from the foundation—money officials say they could use to help implement what Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson called "a culture change."

"The culture change has come over the past 10 or 15 years—a better understanding of helping someone get through substance abuse and dealing with mental health issues,” Anderson told reporters at a press conference. “Before, it used to be, 'You get one chance; you mess up your probation, you're gone.' What we have to realize is we have limited resources, and we have to spend our resources on the people who are killing us and raping us and robbing us rather than on people who are non-violent and low- to moderate-risk.”

In addition to keeping drug offenders out of jail, the proposed changes also seek to divert other non-violent, low-risk groups, such as those charged with small-time retail theft. Also starting in February, Anderson said officials will expand their First Chance Intervention Program—which lets first-time, low-level marijuana offenders off the hook in exchange for community service—to first-time, low-level shoplifters. They'll have 90 days to complete an eight-hour class; if they' stay out of trouble, charges will be dismissed. And in addition to the repeat drug offenders who will have a chance to go to rehab instead of jail, that opportunity will also extend to third-time shoplifters and fourth-time prostitution offenders. 

These changes came about largely because officials were astounded to find that those charged with state jail felonies, a large amount of whom are drug offenders, have a 75 percent recidivism rate in Harris County. “Locking people up isn't doing anything,” said Anderson, who also promised they would still be making these changes with or without the grant. “All it's doing is costing us money.”

And the same could be said of the mentally ill misdemeanant population, which Anderson said are often referred to as "frequent flyers" at the jail. Almost a third of the population of people in the Harris County Jail convicted of misdemeanors are mentally ill, according to data from a summary of the proposal. To help drive that down, officials plan to offer mentally ill indigent defendants a public defender at probable cause hearings, who can work to advocate for mental health treatment opportunities instead of jail the very first time the defendant appears before the magistrate.

Overall, with these diversion plans, officials hope to decrease jail population by 20 percent over three years—and defendants aren't the only people that goal may help. It costs $40 to $45 in taxpayer money to keep a person in jail for one day; that rises to $285 to $300 if the person is mentally ill. Roughly 70 percent of the Harris County Jail population has not even been convicted of a crime, meaning, in many cases, you might be paying to keep a low-risk, non-violent person in jail just long enough for them to lose their job. Some of them are only there because they simply cannot afford to get out.

And while Judge Susan Brown pointed out that they estimate that 65 percent of pretrial defendants are violent, high-risk felons who need to be there, that begs the question: what about the other 3,000 or so people who don't? 

Perhaps that's why Brown followed that up to say the criminal justice system in Harris County just isn't working—at least not today.

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