One of the things that newly elected Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg campaigned on was implementing a new policy that would keep the public safe, allow the D.A.’s office to spend taxpayer money more responsibly and provide equal justice for all.
This past Thursday, Ogg was joined at a news conference by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis and other officials, to make public a new policy affecting the prosecution of thousands of misdemeanor marijuana cases called the Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program.
In the “supposed” crackdown on drugs in America, it has been no secret that people of color have paid the ultimate price as it relates to doing time in prison, and having any drug conviction remain a stain that follows them for the rest of their lives. This has been a painfully true reality for many people of color who have seen their lives ruined and significantly altered after having been arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession, while other races of people have begun to profit off of marijuana, by establishing marijuana dispensaries that are popping up across America – without any worry or penalty.
The majority of individuals who have impacted by misdemeanor marijuana possession, especially in Harris County, have been Blacks and Hispanics.
According to a June 2013 report that was the first to examine marijuana possession arrest rates by race for all 50 states (and the District of Columbia) and their respective counties from 2001 to 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million marijuana arrests in the United States, 88% of which were for possession. The report relied on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program and the United States Census’ annual county population estimates and found that marijuana arrests increased between 2001 and 2010 and now account for over half (52%) of all drug arrests in the United States, and marijuana possession arrests account for nearly half (46%) of all drug arrests. In 2010, there was one marijuana arrest every 37 seconds, and states spent combined over $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws.
What was most startling about the report was that it found that, on average, a Black person was nearly 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a White person, even though Blacks and Whites use marijuana at similar rates. The report also found that in over 96% of counties with more than 30,000 people in which at least 2% of the residents are Black, Blacks were arrested at higher rates than Whites for marijuana possession.
The new policy that was rolled out this past Thursday by Ogg is the result of a collaborative effort between the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and local law enforcement to direct their efforts to those who commit crimes against people and property, such as robberies, burglaries, rapes and murder, among other crimes.
The office will use its Texas Legislature-mandated discretion to divert offenders in possession of small amounts of marijuana starting March 1.
“Harris County has spent more than $200 million in the past decade on more than 100,000 cases of misdemeanor marijuana possession,” Ogg said. “The endeavor has had no tangible public safety benefit for the people of Harris County, yet has deprived neighborhoods of officers’ time that could be spent patrolling communities; jail beds that could be used for violent criminals, crime lab resources needed for DNA testing, and judicial court time that should be spent bringing serious criminals to justice.”
The goal of the program is to ensure that the limited resources of prosecutors, local law enforcement and the Harris County Jail, are used to increase public safety and see that those in possession of misdemeanor amounts of marijuana are not stigmatized by criminal records that limit their employment, education and housing opportunities.
In a statement from Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, he has already condemned the policy, stating that he “does not believe that law enforcement has the discretion to choose what laws to enforce and what laws to ignore.”
Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon sent out a press release prior to the press conference stating that Ogg “doesn’t speak for the State of Texas or the majority of elected
District and County Attorney’s across the State,” and going even further to state that “unlike Harris County, Montgomery County will not become a sanctuary for dope smokers. I swore an oath to follow the law – all the laws, as written by the Texas Legislature. I don’t get topick and choose which laws I enforce.”
When asked by the Forward Times at the press conference whether she believed the State legislature would overturn the policy, Ogg was adamant in her defense that the policy does not violate state law, does not encourage drug usage and does not present a danger to the public.
The program has garnered the support of many high-level officials, members of the clergy and community leaders from all across Harris County. At the press conference, Ogg and many of those leaders unilaterally denounced the few detractors who have called this newly-introduced program an attempt to decriminalize drug use and possession.
“With limited resources, we need to be efficient, smart and thoughtful on fighting
Crime,” said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo. “We need to focus our efforts on fighting violent crime and investigating home and business burglaries, not on minor drug offenses. Protecting lives and property need to be our highest priorities.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner stated that the city has been looking into this policy idea for quite some time because of its expected impact on the efficiency of our law enforcement efforts.
“We must always be smart and safe with our decisions, but if we can achieve that while improving and enhancing the system, why wouldn’t we pursue it?,” said Turner. “It makes no sense to continue to crowd our jail cells when there is a better way that will allow our officers to concentrate more of their time in other areas that will have a greater impact on public safety.”
“I am encouraged by the collaborative effort to reform our criminal justice system underway in Harris County,” said Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. “Working together we can identify practical solutions to reform our trouble criminal justice system, while remaining steadfast in our duty to protect the citizens of Harris County”
“This new program instituted by District Attorney Ogg is a positive first step towards
improving public safety and creating a fairer and more equal justice system for all,” said Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis. “We must move away from wasteful and inefficient policies of mass incarceration and shift toward more effective and less destructive smart-on-crime strategies for low-level, non-violent offenses.”
According to Ogg, her office recognizes that the possession of marijuana is illegal in the state of Texas and that police, when acting in a constitutional manner, have the authority to arrest offenders who break the law. Further, she states that her office has a commitment to the greater Houston business and labor communities to keep people in the workforce whenever possible by diverting them around the criminal justice system before they are charged with the crime of misdemeanor possession of marijuana. According to Ogg, accountability for breaking the law will remain an important component of her office’s new policy as all offenders are required to meet eligibility standards and complete a four-hour education program. Otherwise, they will face traditional arrest and charging procedures for their offense.
The Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program (MMDP) is a pre-charge diversion program offered by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to Offenders who would otherwise be arrested and charged with possession of misdemeanor marijuana, regardless of criminal history. It is a voluntary program which gives the Offender an opportunity to avoid arrest, jail booking, and the filing of a criminal charge.
The way the program will work, is when an Offender is detained for possession of a misdemeanor amount of marijuana, the Officer will contact the Harris County District Attorney Intake Division to confirm probable cause for the detention. After that happens, if the Harris County District Attorney’s Office determines that the Offender is eligible for the MMDP, the Officer will NOT make a District Attorney Intake Management System (DIMS) entry, but will instead refer the Offender to the MMDP program sponsored by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and into a four-hour “Cognitive Decision Making” class taught by the Harris County Community Corrections & Supervision Department (HCCCSD). Eligible Offenders who elect to participate in the MMDP program will sign an agreement to sign up and complete the “Cognitive Decision Making” class instead of facing traditional arrest and prosecution. Offenders will have 90 calendar days to complete the MMDP program. If the Offender successfully completes the MMDP program, no criminal charge will be filed against the Offender and there will be no criminal history of the event. If the Offender fails to comply with the MMDP program requirements, a formal criminal charge will be entered into DIMS and an arrest warrant will be issued for the Offender by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office Intake Division.
To be eligible and to participate in the MMDP program, an individual has to be an adult, age 17 or older; must be detained or arrested for possession of marijuana (Class A & B); must possess sufficient identifying information at the time of detention or arrest according to the intervening law enforcement agency’s policy; must have no additional criminal charges arising out of the instant detention other than Class C misdemeanor tickets; must have no outstanding warrants; and must not currently be on bond, deferred adjudication or probation in Harris County or another jurisdiction for any offense other than a Class C offense.
An individual will be considered “not” eligible and unable to participate in the MMDP program if they are currently on bond, deferred adjudication or probation in Harris County or another jurisdiction for any offense other than a Class C offense; is in possession of marijuana with the intent to deliver (those individuals will be arrested and charged with that crime); is in possession of a concealed handgun and marijuana (in such instances, the Offender will be charged with Unlawfully Carrying A Weapon only and the marijuana will be tagged as evidence); is in possession of a misdemeanor amount of marijuana in a “drug free zone”; is in possession of a misdemeanor amount of marijuana in a corrections facility; or is currently in the MMDP Program 90-day program period, prior to completion of the program.
It is important to emphasize that the goal of this new policy is not to encourage citizens of Harris County to become irresponsible and negligent when it comes to the usage and/or distribution of marijuana throughout Harris County. Individuals will still be dealt with as a criminal, so it is important to be extremely wise with your decision making. The goal of the new policy is to ensure that (1) the limited resources of this Office, local law enforcement, and the Harris County Jail are used responsibly to increase public safety; and (2) individuals who commit the non-violent crime of possessing a misdemeanor amount of marijuana are not stigmatized by a criminal record that limits their employment, education, and housing opportunities.
The Forward Times will continue to monitor this groundbreaking new program that has been implemented by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, and will ensure to get the data to see if people of color will see a positive change in their communities and their livelihoods because of it.