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):
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.
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.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

Actually, it is silly to base the decision of arrest or ticket on the quantity of drugs found on the person. The fact that one drug idiot might have already sold or used his drugs before the point of arrest is merely a happenstance. The drug idiot with a gram in his pocket is no less a drug idiot than the one puffing the last of his stash.

The truth is liberals will take decriminalization in any form, regardless whether it makes any sense.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"liberals will take decriminalization in any form"

"Liberals" like Republican DA Pat Lykos? Like GOP Judge Michael McSpadden? When did this horrid "liberalism" infect the Texas GOP? Bob Deuell on needle exchange, Lykos and McSpadden on parapheralia - to hear you tell it, all these Republican officeholders are refugees from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement.

OTOH, maybe you're just an anonymous cowardly troll with nothing to contribute but name calling and your views don't really reflect mainstream conservative thinking.

Mark #1 said...

Ouch!! That's gonna leave a mark!

Anonymous said...

It seems so wrong to me that any drug case would take precedence over a rape case... ever.

But I think it's because of the possible money involved and the unnatural cultivated hatred that is prevalent in drug cases.

That still doesn't make it right.

Hope

Anonymous said...

Why do we never see the numbers when there's a discussion regarding the handling of these "residual amount" cases? Just how many of these offenders are "clogging" the Harris County Jail annually? For first time offenders these are already mandatory probation cases. Section 12.42 of the Penal Code also provides a mechanism for State Jail felonies t be downgraded to Class "A" misdemeanors. And then you can go with a deferred adjudication probation for a month or two and the offender won't even have a conviction. Whatever merit the "fine only" approach might have on these trace amount cases, it seems to me that you're missing an opportunity to get some of these folks treatment and just prolonging the inevtible. Sooner or later, they will reoffend and be right back in the sytem. How is this cost effective?

I tend to agree with the poster above who believes this is all about decriminalization. If it was just about the efficient allocation of governmental resources, Texas law already provides prosecutors and courts the means to be extremely lenient on these cases. At a minimum, each cases should be evaluated according to its individual merits without some blanket accross the board policy that trace amount cases will never be handled as felonies or anything above a Class C.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

12:06, asks: "Why do we never see the numbers when there's a discussion regarding the handling of these "residual amount" cases? Just how many of these offenders are "clogging" the Harris County Jail annually?"

In an earlier story, the Chron suggested "as many as 750 of the 11,000 people in jail could be affected."

The difference between handling these cases as you suggest and the route Lykos is going is that your method a) keeps the felony dockets full of petty cases and b) forces the county to pay for indigent defense costs as well as jail costs they don't incur if it's a Class C.

Other Texas counties operate just fine with this policy and the sky won't fall in Houston, either.

Anonymous said...

I don't think a ticket and a fine are even going to begin to solve the problem here. And, unfortunately, given the secondary costs associated with addictive behavior, what money Harris County saves on the front end is only going to wind up being paid by other "bystanders" when the drug abuser either spends the "family paycheck" on crack, or commits any variety of other property crimes to support his habit. You know as well as I do that the overwhelming majority of folks who get caught with a pipe and brillo pad are hard core addicts. If you're such a believer in the benefits of "treatment" and rehabilitation, why are you know so willing to forego an opportunity to lend a helping hand to those who might truly benefit from it? The collateral consequences of drug addiction are very real. Just burying our heads in the sand when we discover someone in crisis is not going to solve anything. If you're advocating the legalization of crack and meth, then say so. But this drip, drip "Chinese Water Torture" assault on the prosecution of drug offenses is so transparent that even a blind man can see what's going on. Whatever little money Harris County might save from writing tickets to a few crackheads will no doubt be paid again ten times over by the people of Harris County who will continue to be harmed by such addictive behavior. Is the offender with a "residual quantity" of meth or crack any less in need of treatment and someone who gets caught with a tenth of a gram? I doubt it. Let's just be consistent here. If they get caught in possession of an illegal drug, let's deal with the problem rather than sitting around and twiddling our thumbs while waiting for the offender to get caught with a little more dope next time. Advocating this proposal under the guise of "saving money" is just a copout.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

1:59 writes: "why are you know so willing to forego an opportunity to lend a helping hand to those who might truly benefit from it?"

Are you suggesting that under the current regime these offenders are being helped through treatment? Do you believe that?

It's not true. They're frequently jailing them as a probation condition on the first offense and nobody's getting treatment in the jail, they're just sitting out their sentence. Judges could order treatment, theoretically, but it's not what's happening in practice in Harris County. You're kidding yourself if you think they're "dealing with" the problem now.

For that matter, a felony rap with lifetime collateral consequences is hardly a "helping hand." Harris is the only large Texas county that charges these cases as felonies; the other's don't do it because it's swatting flies with a sledgehammer and wastes resources.

Bottom line: You can spend all your crime lab money processing crack pipe cases or have resources for prompt service when a rape case comes up (as opposed to the months-long backlog they have now). Resources are limited and you can't prosecute every little thing as a felony, as much as some of our anonymous friends would like to. Which is more important to you, if you have to choose?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

BTW, 1:59, I'm not immune to your argument about using this offense as a way to ID people who need help. That's a big reason I support needle exchange - it's a way to gain access to a difficult to reach population and potentially get them services, treatment, medical care, etc., that saves lives and public dollars down the line.

But needle exchange operates in the realm of health professionals and social workers, they're not arresting and prosecuting drug users in felony court. That's ACTUALLY giving them a "helping hand" instead of punishing them harshly and saying "it's for your own good."

It might well make sense to develop programming that targets folks who get these Class C tickets that offers them help in the same kind of non-threatening way that needle exchange does, treating them as addicts, not criminals. That would make more sense to me and I don't think such an idea is out of the realm of possibility. To my knowledge, nobody is doing it now, but it's not a bad idea. It'd be an interesting thought exercise to imagine what such a program might look like.

But that's in the land of "what if." In the land of "what is," a Class C that avoids the lifetime felony tag is preferable to what's happening with these cases right now.

Anonymous said...

We are dealing with a sad legacy.

I was around when all my liberal friends were convienced that drug use was cool and heard them condoned the use of just about all types of drugs. For years they called the cops "pigs" and thought they were superior because they were mainlining the propoganda put out by their left wing professors. They were dead wrong and when a lot of them started dying it took years before they finally had a clue as to what was really going on. They used to lecture us and if they had blogs they would have ran them.

Back then I called it ignorant/arrogance. We seem to have the same type attitude being displayed today by those who still think they know a little bit more than the rest of us. When you find residue of crack in a pipe, my friend. you probably have no idea what that little clue represents.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

You're the one "lecturing," 9:18. Nobody's forcing you to read what I write - if you don't like what you find here, don't visit.

And yes, I have an idea what "clue" trace evidence in a crack pipe represents. But do you have a clue how the justice system works in the real world? How much it costs? How it's paid for? Which priorities are more important?

I'd rather the system take one rapist off the street than three addicts caught with a crack pipe - every day of the week and twice on Sunday. But inexplicably you're arguing for soaking up as much police, jail, court and crime lab resources as possible to prosecute crackheads while there's a long line for testing rape kits and crimes with actual VICTIMS go uninvestigated and unsolved. Houston PD doesn't even send burglary evidence to the crime lab because they're too backed up - but you want them to send thousands of crack pipes each year for an offense that's a Class C misdemeanor everywhere else in the state. Your economic and public safety priorities are WAY skewed.

Also, I'm guessing you're anonymous because if your "liberal friends" saw what you'd written they'd tell you you're full of s%^t and arguing against a straw man, not anyone's actual views.

Boyness said...

Gritsforbreakfast said...

OTOH, maybe you're just an anonymous cowardly troll with nothing to contribute but name calling and your views don't really reflect mainstream conservative thinking.

12/29/2009 10:22:00 AM
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HELL YES GRITS!! WAY TO SAY IT!!!!

Boyness said...

Anonymous said...

When you find residue of crack in a pipe, my friend. you probably have no idea what that little clue represents.

12/29/2009 09:18:00 PM
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And you do? Enlighten us oh great one!

Anonymous said...

Grits, you are such a hypocrite. When treatment works, you claim victory for the system. But, when you have the opportunity to abandon prosecution of an entire class of cases (that would have benefited from treatment), you change direction and claim the cases don't need to be in the system.

That's the sort of blindness that comes from lying about what you really mean. You truly want drugs to be free and available. Just say it. Oh, but then you couldn't stand on your pedestal and profess to be just looking at the facts.

Shame on you.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

12:12, I've suggested @5:48 ways to target such folks for treatment and addiction-related services, I just don't see the benefit of hanging a felony tag on them or clogging up the jails and courts to do it. Not everyone who disagrees with you is "lying," even if it makes you feel better to believe so.

OTOH, anyone who calls someone a liar but is too afraid to sign their name to the accusation is definitely a two-bit coward. Man up, will ya, if you're going to spout accusations like that. Grow a set, fer godssake. You may not like what I have to say, but you never have to guess who's saying it.

Anonymous said...

Grits,
The point was made above that under current Texas law, you don't have to hang a "felony label" on residual amount offenders now. They can very well get deferreds and get the 12.42 Penal Code reduction down to a Class A (and that too can be deferred). I don't understand the logic behind making an arbitrary distinction between someone who possesses a trace amount of meth or cocaine, and someone who posesses a tenth of a gram. If court intervention including treatment and probation is justified in one instance; why isn't it in the other? What incentive would any crackhead ever have to participate in court ordered treatment if all they were facing was Class C punishment, i.e., a fine?

I really think your "saving resources" argument is disingenuous in this particular instance. If you really want to save money so the labs can focus on rapists and burglars, then let's just legalize drugs altogether. I think your libertarian streak is really showing in regard to this issue. As an aside, I wonder how many burglaries and rapes are drug related?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

But you have to do it through the felony courts, pay for their lawyers, probably keep them in jail if they can't make bail, pay for the crime lab tests, etc.. Meanwhile they can't test all the rape kits.

I'll admit I've got a libertarian streak, but let's be real: these are Republican elected officials making these decisions, not me. I just said I agreed with them.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't referring to law enforcement. When you find residue of crack in a pipe, what does that clue represent? What does it indicate about the condition of the person with the pipe, what about his family (kids running around wearing other people's clothes, etc.). What does it indicate about denial and what does minimizing the nature of the clue say about the culture?

Any problem like this that's not dealt with only gets bigger. Unfortunatley, due to the nature of the culture, etc. treatment often doesn't work. To say "put them in treatment" while well meaning is often a simplistic and futile gesture.

Anonymous said...

Sam Stone's story is not all that uncommon.

Anonymous said...

Google: sam stone Swamp Dogg Live at Paradiso Amsterdam

One of the best blues songs ever (by Swamp Dogg).