Drugs are about to get a lot of airtime in Harris County in the next several months leading up to the general election — at least in the race for Harris County District Attorney.
On Tuesday night, Democratic candidate Kim Ogg managed to avoid a runoff, scoring more than 50 percent of the vote in her primary contest against former judge Morris Overstreet and repeat candidate Lloyd Oliver (who never actually campaigns). That means she'll face incumbent Republican Devon Anderson come November for the second consecutive time.
And yet again, drug reform is a major component of each candidate's platform. The difference this time, though, is that Anderson actually has something to show for the reforms she has championed since that 2014 race. "In November the voters will again have the opportunity to decide between my proven leadership or Ogg’s political rhetoric. I believe the voters will reelect me," Anderson said in a statement to the Houston Press.
Since the last race, Anderson started her so-called "first chance intervention" program for first-time, low-level marijuana offenders who, in exchange for community service, are let off the hook and avoid a criminal record. Though it had a questionable track record in its first few months (most officers were denying it to eligible offenders, only for offenders to be offered the program in court), Anderson has since made it mandatory for all police agencies to offer the program to eligible offenders before they are jailed and charged. Taking an even bigger leap, this February Anderson launched a diversion program for first-time felony drug offenders caught with less than four grams of a controlled substance; if they complete a year of probation and stay clean, prosecutors will dismiss the charges.
The key difference between Anderson and Ogg, however, is that Anderson primarily focuses on first-time offenders. Ogg told us she sees no point in that.
Ogg would seek to effectively decriminalize misdemeanor marijuana possession entirely by declining to prosecute any of those cases. And this wouldn't just apply to first-time offenders, Ogg said, but to all of them.
“We should be focusing on the crime that is alleged, not the person's background,” she said. “We've created a class of repeat offenders, and by continuing to give them convictions for low-level crimes, we make them unemployable, un-houseable, and ripe for re-entering the criminal justice system. I want to end that self-perpetuating cycle.”
Ogg estimates she can save the county around $10 million a year if they stop taking potheads to court at all. That way, she said, the county can use those resources to crack down on actual violent criminals.
Ogg also says she would also stop accepting charges on any “trace cases,” in which the amount found on a person is so small that sometimes it's hard for even the crime labs to detect it. Several years ago, former Harris County DA Pat Lykos did in fact stop prosecuting trace cases — then, Anderson's late husband reversed that policy when he took office as the new DA. When he died, Anderson was appointed in his place and continued to prosecute trace cases. Her office started refusing to offer plea deals on drug cases until crime lab results came back once it became clear that in the past a whole lot of people had pleaded guilty to cases in which lab tests later revealed there were no drugs (or drugs were in such minuscule amounts the lab literally could not detect it).
Still, Ogg says people have to sit in jail waiting on those test results, eating up yet more taxpayer dollars. She called it unconstitutional, and said she would reverse this policy immediately upon taking office. As for Anderson's other drug reforms, Ogg said she doesn't think it will be hard for her to compete, because she is unconvinced that Anderson can prove that the reforms have led to major cost savings, time savings, or even that Anderson has improved public safety as a result. Ogg says that, by diverting resources away from all non-violent drug offenders the office could focus more on career criminals and gang activity.
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