Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Harris DA's drug-policy change will improve equity, jail crowding

Pretty big news out of Houston today on the drug-policy front. Harris County DA Pat Lykos announced a change in her office's charging policy on low-level drug offenses that will put Houston in line with other Texas jurisdictions, but has the police union seething ("DA's crack pipe policy stirs storm," Dec. 9):

Starting next year, the Harris County District Attorney's Office no longer will file state jail felony charges against suspects found with only a trace — less than a hundreth of a gram — of illegal drugs, District Attorney Pat Lykos said Tuesday.

Instead, people found with crack pipes with nothing more than residue inside or other drug paraphernalia, would face a ticket for a class C misdemeanor, which carries a maximum fine of $500.

Not surprisingly, the pending change was hailed by defense lawyers, but criticized by police officers.

“It ties the hands of the officers who are making crack pipe cases against burglars and thieves,” said Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union. “A crack pipe is not used for anything but smoking crack by a crack head. Crack heads, by and large, are also thieves and burglars. They're out there committing crimes.” ...

Blankinship said the district attorney's office is trying to restrict the volume of cases rather than deal with them.

“When they get to a certain caseload, we're supposed to stop?” he asked. “Stop arresting people who are violating the law? How much sense does that make?”

Lykos said there were several reasons to change the policy, including the inability of defense experts to re-test drug residue that is destroyed when it is analyzed. To be tested twice, there has to be more than a hundredth of a gram, she said. ...

Lykos said the move “gives us more of an ability to focus on the violent offenses and the complex offenses. When you have finite resources, you have to make decisions, and this decision is a plus all around.”

I know one group who will be particularly pleased by this welcome news: Judge Michael McSpadden and other Harris County criminal district judges who've been agitating to reduce the less-than-a-gram caseload in felony courts. “Sixteen of us feel that it’s just unfair to be convicted for a residue amount and be labeled a felon, which changes your whole life,” McSpadden told the Houston Chronicle earlier this year. This policy will contribute concretely to that goal.

Indeed, Harris County accounts for such a large proportion of less-than-a-gram cases in Texas, this decision could even help out the state in the medium-term with managing state-jail population growth.

Really, despite the police union's opposition, this is a no-brainer: Even Murray Newman thinks it's a good idea and he can't agree with Pat Lykos on the weather.

Kudos to Lykos for pulling the trigger on a decision that's an easy call from a policy perspective but a potential political headache, especially with the union. Given scarce resources, though, it makes little sense to waste crime-lab personnel and felony-court dockets on these penny-ante cases - particularly since Harris is the only big county to charge paraphernalia that way. This decision was long overdue. Other jurisdictions do fine actually using Texas' Class C paraphernalia statute; so will they.

Just to have said so: If the DA wanted to further reduce the jail population, she could direct her office to stop seeking jail time as a probation "condition" on the first offense in these less-than-a-gram cases - a reactionary policy instituted by per predecessor. Harris is the only county in Texas to routinely send first-offense probationers to county jail for up to six months for less-than-a-gram drug possession (including the paraphernalia cases which will now be handled as misdemeanors). The Legislature in 2005 directed judges to give these cases probation on the first offense, however Harris County from the beginning took the defiant stance of routinely jailing them instead. As of November 1, according to data reported (pdf) to the Commission on Jail Standards, Harris County had 1,181 convicted state-jail felons housed in the county jail; as of that same date (pdf), Harris had 1,212 inmates housed out of county.

So those two changes on less-than-a-gram cases combined would actually go most of the way toward ending Harris' reliance on out-of-county contract beds in the relatively near future. That's why I consider the issue of jail overcrowding in Harris County more a question of political will than demographic necessity: Pat Lykos demonstrated leadership in this decision and she deserves credit for it.

UPDATE: Already backtracking? Under pressure from Houston PD, Lykos now says she'll reevaluate the new policy in six months.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad I don't live in Harris County.....the DA just figured out how to make judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and crack heads happy....hmmmm, criminal justice??

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Odds are you're already there, amigo. In case you didn't catch it, Harris County is an outlier. Assuming you're a Texan and live in an urban county, they just changed their policy to make it like the one in YOURS. Most places don't send paraphernalia to the crime lab to get a possession charge - they're too backed up with more serious cases.

Anonymous said...

Completley absurd! So much for criminal justice in Texas. Like the case is made, those individuals that use crack are responsible for other crimes as well.

Crime in America is getting ready to explode to unprecedented highs. In the end, liberals will see that the cost of criminals on the street, is ultimately greater than the cost of incarceration.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Crime in America is getting ready to explode"

Maybe you're right. From other Texas jurisdictions' experience with exactly this same policy, though, your dire predictions seem off base.

Anonymous said...

Your assumptions are foolish at best! These new policy changes can have nothing but a negative impact on criminal justice.

Crime will go up; however, arrests will go down. In a liberals twisted mind, this is considered a success.

Anonymous said...

Another Grits liberalness victory. The price will be paid by storeowners bothered by crackheads, victims of burglary and the occasional car jacking. Idiot.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Uh, this was a Republican DA in Texas' most conservative large county. Is she now a "Grits liberal," too? Or Judge McSpadden, for heaven's sake? You fantasize that my influence is much greater than it is.

As opposed to reflexive naysayers who spout glib, content-free barbs instead of offering constructive suggestions - always, one notices, wrapped in the coward's comfort of anonymity - the DA actually gets paid to make the tough calls about departmental priorities. In the scheme of things this was a wise one.

What offenders would you divert from the jail instead? Or do you want your taxes raised to pay for Sheriff Garcia's quarter-billion dollar bond issue, and still have to ship prisoners out of state?

Anonymous said...

If police officers are so concerned about stopping addicts from potentially committing property crimes in order to support their drug addiction habit then why aren’t they advocating for drug treatment and community based treatment programs?

Anonymous said...

Simple, because those treatment programs DO NOT work! Treatment is only successful when the person receiving treatment initiates treatment. That is why there are so many probation revocations for failed treatment. Court ordered counseling is a waste of time.

Once again, it is a liberal mindsight that everybody wants to change for the better!

Anonymous said...

I would much rather have my taxes raised to take a criminal off the street, than have my taxes raised to feed someone that doesn't want to work!

Mark Bennett said...

I had a bunch of visits from an HPD officers' forum to my post six days ago breaking this news; none of them commented, but I don't as a rule allow comments from people who are afraid to take personal responsibility for their opinions.

Anonymous said...

I pray that no one you care about struggles with addiction. How does locking up an addict (a sick person)
cure him or her? It doesn't, in fact, doing so makes the person worse. It's a public health issue that impacts public safety. Other states are saving lives and millions of dollars by treating people instead of locking them up and hoping they will come out and stay away from drugs.

Minneapolis DUI lawer said...

I agree that treatment is only effective when the person wants to get help, but everyone deserves a chance.

Anonymous said...

Many of the people that post on this blog represent departments or agencies around the state. Please don't confuse our anonymous post as being cowardly. As a supervisor at a probation department, I would hate for my opinions to reflect on the department as a whole.

In fact, there has been a director from a state agency that has scolded officers for posting on this particular blog.

Anonymous said...

Yes, they have scared the tyc people from even commenting about all the problems.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention the fact that the judges have been asking for this too. I guess Harris County judges are now Grits Liberals.


Anonymous said...

Pat Lykos has always been tough on crime, and she has also always had a mind of her own. As long as there is a war on drugs there will be lots of crime, you can’t have the largest black market in history operating free from crime; it just doesn’t work that way.

What is a bit confusing is if 16 District Court Judges are in possible agreement with this decision, then why are they so eager to drug test pre-trial defendants who have not been found guilty of anything yet?

The argument that where there’s smoke there is fire is as equally present with a crack pipe as it is with a drug test, so why waste huge chunks of tax dollars drug testing so that the same defendant that was just released can be placed back in jail?

If the argument is that a felony conviction changes the lives of people, try putting requirements on people that take them away from their jobs while they sit for hours and hours waiting to be tested, or lose their jobs altogether because they have been placed in jail for a week or a month without the possibility of being released over a drug test.

They are under prosecution already, what exactly is the drug test supposed to be promoting, proper court room sobriety? With this policy it is ok to ask the person administering the drug test to hold your crack pipe while you get tested without any real penalty, but if you take a hit then give them the pipe you’re off to jail.

Anonymous said...

11:28, the pre-trial drug tests are a method of coercing pleas and moving the docket. If a defendant's bond is forfeited for a dirty UA and that defendant can't make the doubled bond, almost all of them will take the plea offer, especially if its deferred, so they can get out of jail that same day and try to keep their jobs and their lives rather than sit in jail for months awaiting trial.
6:56, in Mark Bennett land, anyone who doesn't conform to his lofty standards must either be unintelligent, uneducated, a coward, or some combination thereof. From his lofty philosophical perch, he fails to grasp that not everyone has the freedom to pontificate publicaly, but you really can't expect someone who went to Rice to bother with such plebeian trivia as having to answer to an employer.

Anonymous said...

Gosh I don’t think I was advocating Bennett Bashing, it’s his blog and I think if he chooses to be selective in the views he wishes his readers and fellow bloggers to be subjected to then he should be allowed to manipulate his blog in anyway he chooses.

Oh, never mind, I see now you were addressing his statement directly.

So referring then back to mine; surely you are not trying to suggest that you may have some type of employment within the Harris County Criminal Justice System and are making inflammatory statements behind the cover of anonymity.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

6:56, etc., re anonymity: I respect that public employees may feel the need to comment anonymously. That's the main reason I still allow it.

However, privileges come with responsibility: All who comment anonymously have a special obligation to remain credible and avoid "glib, content-free barbs" (e.g., @2:01) and personal or ad hominem attacks - at least, if they want me to take them seriously. Otherwise, they're just trolling and hiding behind anonymity like a mother's skirt to engage in name calling and to make provocative statements they'd be afraid or embarrassed to sign their name to. That's cowardice - I don't care if you do wear a gun and a badge at your day job.

That said, this string hasn't been nearly as bad on that score as some (though the troll who does't know "liberalness" isn't a word is a regular offender), but in my mind anonymous commenters, even if I allow them, always start with two strikes and must prove themselves through reason and sound argument or I dismiss them.

If folks want to comment anonymously and visit here regularly, I'd suggest you adopt a pseudonym to differentiate yourself from the trolls and whiners.

kaptinemo said...

One of the problems with drug-related crime is that there's hardly anyone alive who remembers when such a thing didn't exist.

Because there's hardly anyone alive who was an adult at the time before drugs were criminalized.

Whole generations have come and gone who've never known that prior to their criminalization, presently illegal drugs were in fact legal and therefor cheap, and an addict could get their fix without engaging in criminal behavior.

Criminalizing the production, possession and sale of banned drugs made the development of the crime necessary to afford the (now, hyper-inflated) cost of an illegal substance inevitable.

So, given that, you have to ask: who benefits from keeping some drugs illegal? Obviously, the dealers of them, but also the very people who complain so loudly about having their hands tied in fighting those dealers.

Two sides of the same coin, joined together at the edge by drug prohibition. And we're in such bad shape financially in this country that we can't afford to mint that coin anymore. Which is in no small part why the laws are changing. Because we just can't afford to lock up those who really need to be behind bars when we're spending way too much incarcerating people (as a Texas lawmaker put it) some folks are just 'mad at'.

Mark Bennett said...

A government job, with a regular paycheck and benefits, has some costs, no doubt. One of those costs is some practical limits on speech. This is nothing new.

So I wondered to myself, "before the internet, how did people like 2:01 express their opinions publicly while protecting their jobs?"

Then I realized:

Anonymous said... spoke too soon, Grits. According to today's Chronicle Lycos is having second thoughts about this ill-advised policy change.

Anonymous said...

John Reed said...You people are funny!