Wednesday, November 12, 2008

New Harris DA should re-examine charging decisions on petty drug cases

Houston Chronicle columnist Rick Casey previews a Pat Lykos administration at the Harris County District Attorney's Office:
here comes Lykos, who has not only never prosecuted but who also has never headed a large organization, to lead one of the largest law firms in town, with about 250 prosecutors and hundreds of support staff.

It's no wonder some prosecutors, who have been laboring since March under the steady hand of interim DA Kenneth Magidson, a career federal prosecutor, are nervous about their futures. Especially since Lykos had a reputation for a somewhat mercurial temperament as a judge.

They will have to wait to see how she will be as a leader, but here are some issues and areas they can expect her to address:

  • She believes that most the current staff are "good, honorable people," but also thinks that a few who "really did bad things" under Rosenthal have not been held accountable. She intends to remedy that.
  • Outside the office, she said she plans to work with County Judge Emmett to implement recommendations by the Annie Casey Foundation to divert non-violent juveniles away from incarceration at the overloaded Juvenile Justice Center.
  • She plans to fight for an independent regional crime lab.
  • She will run murder cases "through a finer sifting process" before deciding which ones deserve the death penalty.
  • In order to beef up the office's white-collar crime efforts, "I want to meet with Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, for advice. He is the best DA in the country, and he tries very complex white-collar cases."
  • She said she will intensify ongoing training both in ethics and in technique.

"My goal is to assure the people we will restore the rule of law in Harris County, to restore public confidence," she said.

It's especially remarkable, don't you think, to see the District Attorney-elect - who's replacing a defrocked incumbent from her own party - announce that there's a need to "restore the rule of law in Harris County"? That's quite an implication!

Personally I'd like to see the Harris DA add a few items to her list. The office needs to change how it handles low-level drug offenders, particularly boosting paraphernalia arrests to felonies by sending the evidence to already overburdened crime labs to test residue (and thus charge offenders with possession). Judge Michael McSpadden can give her a primer on this if she's not already aware of the problem.

Similarly, Harris County is the only big county in the state where, for first time drug possession offenders caught with less than a gram of a controlled substance - cases in which courts are mandated to give probation on the first offense - prosecutors routinely seek and get jail time in the county hoosgow as a condition of probation. Those type of overly punitive charging decisions on low-level offenses are needlessly jamming up the courts, not to mention contributing to jail overcrowding, and it's within Judge Lykos' purview to change them once she takes office.


Anonymous said...

Once again, as it did during the long recession of the 1970's, the economy will dictate how the system operates, not ideology.

The punitive ideology favored by the 'mandatory minimum' crowd - such as "broken windows" - has led to a broken treasury. And the reality of this is only now just beginning to seep into the minds of those toiling away in the system's innards.

It remains to be seen, however, if that realization will be acknowledged at the top of the prosecutorial food chain, for the political ramifications of it will prove damaging to the careers of many who've made their bones espousing those punitive ideologies.

Continuing to demand support for the policies that have played a major part in bankrupting that treasury will prove to be very difficult, indeed...

Anonymous said...

Hi - does anyone have ideas or data on a "show me the money" trail about the huge profits in arrest and prosecution for bail companies and the possibility for payoffs to public officials?

And then, following this logic, the profits in Harris County from incarcerating people who by state law should not be incarcerated?

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