The Harris County DA's Race Is Mostly About Drugs

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This year, the race for Harris County District Attorney, who heads the largest prosecutor's office in Texas and one of the largest in the country, is mostly about drugs.

That much was clear in a debate this weekend hosted by Fox 26 between incumbent Republican Devon Anderson and Democratic challenger Kim Ogg. Instead of trading tough-on-crime bona fides, or arguing over who's "soft" on the death penalty (Harris County is, after all, the most execution-friendly county in the nation), the vast majority of the debate centered on how to handle low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

This is a marked a departure from 2012, when former state judge Mike Anderson, defeated former DA Pat Lykos in the GOP primary by promising to return to the "good old days", hammering Lykos' deferred-adjudication program for first-time DWI offenders and her policy of not pressing felony charges for trace amounts of crack cocaine or crack pipes.

Devon Anderson, who was appointed last year to complete her husband's term after he died of cancer, has taken a harder stance on drug cases than Ogg (Anderson, for instance, summarily rejects going back the Lykos policy of reduced penalties for trace cases). Still, it's clear that at least some misdemeanor marijuana cases won't be handled the same way after this year.

In August Anderson began to outline her so-called "first chance intervention program," under which anyone caught with less than 2 ounces of pot would be arrested and then given the option of community service or a substance abuse class in lieu of the charge appearing on their record. Anderson's plan, which would only help first-time offenders her office deems "low-risk," is much more selective than Ogg's, which would encompass all misdemeanor pot cases (not just low-risk first-timers, and not just under 2 ounces).

"We are only going to give it to a self-correcting group of people who will be scared straight by this process and we will never see them again in the criminal justice system," Anderson said at Sunday morning's debate.

Ogg says she wants to spare the time and resources prosecutors and police waste hounding marijuana cases. Ogg would send anyone carrying less than 4 ounces of pot directly to court - no arrest - and offer them a clean record if they do two days of community service picking trash in the bayous. "I expect they will show up" to court," she said. Otherwise, "we'll write a warrant for their arrest, and police can kick their door."

Anderson chided that a DA shouldn't just reject trace crack and crack pipe cases, like Ogg wants to, because she disagrees with the law. "My opinion is that it doesn't matter what the district attorney's opinion is regarding the law," Anderson said. "We take an oath ... to uphold the laws of the state of Texas, all of tem, whether I agree with them or not." Ogg shot back, "I think it's the duty of the DA to use discretion in how we prioritize the expenditure of our resources ... Right now we spend millions of dollars jailing low-level drug offenders at the expense of criminals, and that has got to change."

So this is the new political reality as drug policy across the country continues to shift under our feet. Even in conservative states that have yet to budge on marijuana reform, local politicians recognize that the broader public perception of pot is changing. A Texas Tribune/UT poll early this year found that 77 percent of people support medical marijuana, and 49 percent would legalize it for any purpose. Locally, Rice University's latest Kinder Institute survey found that 72 percent of Houston-area residents think we shouldn't jail people for small amounts of pot, while 65 percent think medical marijuana should be legal.

However, while the pretrial-diversion-for-potheads policies put forward by Ogg and Anderson might sound similar, they come from very different places. "The public wants change on marijuana prosecution," Ogg said at the debate. "They're tired of wasting millions of dollars on such crimes when violent predators and burglars are running our streets." Ogg is even set to attend a local NORML meet-and-greet later this month.

Despite her softer(er) tone on pot than conservative DA's past, Anderson let slide what she really thinks of drugs toward the end of the debate. "You know, a lot has been spoken today about small amounts of drugs or prosecuting drug users, ignoring the fact that this forms the basis of most of the crime that we see down at the court house."

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