Flanked by dozens of members of her transition team, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg laid out plans for what she described as "more diversion, less jail" for people who need help rather than the book thrown at them, such as those who are mentally ill or struggle with addiction.
In response to her 60-member transition team's recommendations, the DA's office released eight brief reports Tuesday touching everything from officer-involved shootings to bail reform, equality in justice to mental health diversion, and detailing how the DA's office plans to implement the various recommendations the eight teams made to her administration.
"What are you gonna see in the future for drug policy reform? More diversion, according to our committee members," Ogg said. "More diversion, more help for the mentally ill, less jail. More division of those who are dangerous from those who are a nuisance and need assistance."
Ogg said that, although these written reports are being released ten months after she took office, the transition team's input was crucial from the start, and she didn't wait on the reports to begin making changes. She trumpeted her marijuana diversion program; her decision to end the prosecution of "trace cases," or cases involving residue or minuscule amounts of drugs; and her administration's commitment to valuing the idea that liberty before trial, not detention, is the norm — especially for those charged with low-level crimes who can't afford to pay bail.
But she was vague on what, specifically, she plans to change from a policy standpoint as a result of the eight teams' input. Asked how exactly she was planning to expand diversion, Ogg said she was "not at liberty" to get into detail on that just yet.
The reports themselves — which were released after the press conference was over — offer a little more detail.
Among the most noteworthy is the passing mention that Ogg's administration "will work with all of the Harris County Law Enforcement agencies" to implement cite and release "for appropriate misdemeanor crimes," which was not mentioned during the press conference. This has been a topic of debate for years, if not a full decade, after the Texas Legislature authorized police in 2007 to issue citations for various small-time crimes rather than arresting people and hauling them to jail. It'd be like getting a traffic ticket, then going to court for it later. It applies to crimes such as driving with an invalid license, criminal mischief, graffiti and possession of less than four ounces of pot (Ogg already diverts most pot cases).
But for whatever reason, only a small handful of counties actually took advantage of cite and release over the years. Last year, former DA Devon Anderson told the Houston Press that a computer software problem was preventing Harris County from doing it, because cops had no way of generating court dates for people while issuing the citations on the spot.
Ogg's spokesman, Dane Schiller, said the DA's office was not immediately able to answer our follow-up questions about how the new administration would tackle this. He said he would get back to us this week.
Also noteworthy are plans to expand mental health diversion. Staci Biggar, a Houston defense attorney who was on Ogg's mental health transition team panel, said that the idea was to transition people charged with low-level crimes like trespassing, often related to a person's mental illness, away from jail and into treatment. Rather than asking for money to fund a program, she said judges can still issue pretrial diversion contracts to mentally ill defendants and individualize the terms based on that person's needs.
"The idea is placing more people on bond and placing them in facilities, making pretrial conditions be to go see a particular health provider, or maybe they need to stay in a particular living situation," Biggar said. "They can order somebody to see a doctor and they can order somebody to be treated by one organization. If you take a misdemeanor [defendant] and maybe that's the first or second time they're arrested, yes, you've been arrested, but we'll drop the charges if you go and do these various things. It shouldn't be that we wait until you're really, really in trouble before there's a stronger intervention for mental health."
Other noteworthy nuggets from the eight transition team reports include the end to hiking bail to sometimes tens of thousands of dollars for suspected undocumented immigrants; vetting expert witnesses in capital murder cases more extensively and never "expert shopping"; and releasing to the public body-cam footage of officer-involved shootings as long as it does not impede an ongoing investigation — among various recommendations from the officer-involved shooting panel headed by former Houston police chief C.O. Bradford.
Asked what the timeline was on implementing all of the recommendations, Ogg said many were in the works, but that voters can judge how she's done by the next election for DA in 2020.
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