The change is good for justice — but also good for our justice system, which has focused too much of its scarce resources on prosecuting low-level addicts instead of more dangerous criminals. Of the 46,000 drug-possession felony cases the county filed last year, a third involved less than a gram of a controlled substance. Many of those cases involved crack pipes, which almost always carry traces of cocaine residue. (Very likely the bills in your wallet do, too. Those molecules get around.)Under the new procedure, if police catch a junkie carrying a crack pipe, he would still be charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, a misdemeanor that can carry up to a $500 ticket. But unless police find at least a hundredth of a gram of the drug — you know, at least a speck — the case won't tie up lab analysts, felony courts, prosecutors or the state jail.That's important because our criminal justice system most definitely has bigger problems to worry about. More than 1,000 rape kits from active cases — currently stuck in limbo — await testing by the Houston Police Department's backlogged crime lab. Police don't bother to collect fingerprints from burglaries or auto thefts because HPD's forensics unit doesn't have time to test them. And our jails are dangerously overcrowded.Crack pipes are the least of our problems. So it's about time we focused on the bigger crimes — and not on the specks.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Chron: Harris DA's new crack pipe policy 'good for justice'
A Houston Chronicle editorial today praises Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos for her decision to join the rest of the state's large jurisdictions and cease filing state-jail felony cases on defendants found with crack pipes where labs detect traces of drugs. Instead, unless there's more than .01 grams of a controlled substance, crack-pipe possessors will receive only misdemeanor paraphernalia charges. Opined the Chron editorial board ("Fitting the Crime: Focus more on rapists than crack residue," Dec. 29):
Lab resources are scarce and processing times are long, so the Chron's absolutely right that such a volitional use of crime labs to bump up a misdemeanor charge to a state jail felony is a waste of time and money that would be better devoted to more serious offenses. The change has been advocated by Harris County judges from both parties and brings the county's practice in line with other large Texas counties.
I think this is a good idea, and more to the point a necessary one. With its jail bursting at the seams and hundreds of prisoners housed outside the state, Harris County doesn't need to be wasting space in the county jail, clogging up felony dockets, and paying indigent defense costs for every addict with a crack pipe. That's too low a threshold to justify hanging a lifetime felony tag on someone, plus the tactic takes away resources needed to investigate and prosecute much more serious crimes.