Marijuana

Houston D.A. Will No Longer Prosecute Pot Cases, Outraging Other Prosecutors

This is why we can't have nice things.

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Randall Benton/TNS/Newscom

Texas' Harris County, which includes Houston, will no longer arrest or prosecute most marijuana possession cases under four ounces starting on March 1, the county district attorney and city officials said in a press conference Thursday.

Harris County D.A. Kim Ogg and Houston city officials instead unveiled a new diversion program they say will steer thousands of people away from jail and a permanent criminal record, while saving the county millions of dollars in court, jail, and drug lab costs. It will also make the third-most populous county in the U.S. one of the more progressive on policing marijuana offenses, at least among places where the drug remains illegal.

"At 107,000 cases over the last ten years, we have spent in excess of $250 million dollars collectively prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety," Ogg said. "Additionally, the collateral damage to our workforce is immeasurable—because what we have done is we have disqualified, unnecessarily, thousands of people from greater job, housing and education opportunities by giving them a criminal record for what is in effect a minor law violation."

Under the new program, those caught with marijuana will be required to take a four-hour diversion class and pay $150 (excepting indigent offenders). They will have no arrest or court record. The county will still prosecute marijuana possession in some instances, such as near school zones, and juveniles are not eligible for the program. However, it still widely expands the previous diversion program offered by the county, which only applied to first-time offenders caught with under two ounces of marijuana.

Criminal justice groups such as Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project applauded the news.

"Prior to today, a person found in possession of four ounces or less of marijuana in Houston faced arrest and possible jail time," Rob Smith, director of the Fair Punishment Project, says. "Even four or five days in jail could mean a lost job or an uncared for child or elderly parent. Today, District Attorney Kim Ogg took an important step toward making the justice system more humane and fair by recognizing that shuffling more people through the system for non-violent drug offenses was doing more harm than good."

Naturally, however, this upset other prosecutors who enjoy throwing long-hairs and beatniks in jail, such as Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon.

"Unlike Harris County, Montgomery County will not become a sanctuary for dope smokers," Ligon said in response to the new policy. "I swore an oath to follow the law—all the laws, as written by the Texas Legislature. I don't get to pick and choose which laws I enforce."

This is an oft-repeated line by prosecutors, suggesting that their hands are tied by what laws legislators pass, but here's the thing: Prosecutors do pick which laws they enforce. They do it every day. Prosecutors have freedom to choose whether to file or dismiss charges, and they often have several overlapping criminal statutes to choose from, allowing them to overcharge or undercharge a defendant as they see fit. For a defendant, this can be the difference between misdemeanor possession, possession with intent to distribute, or drug trafficking and distribution. If a defendant agrees to take a plea deal—and an overwhelming percentage of defendants take the deal because of the leverage prosecutors wield—prosecutors can make more serious charges disappear.

For example, a Reason investigation of Mississippi's asset forfeiture program found several cases where county prosecutors struck deals with defendants, allowing them to plead guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor drug possession. In exchange, county law enforcement forfeited defendants' guns and cars.

Rather than using their power to secure favorable convictions or asset forfeiture revenue, Ogg and Harris County law enforcement are doing what many criminal justice reform experts say is one of the most essential—yet hardest—tasks to reduce America's massive prison population: using their discretion to stop people from getting a criminal record in the first place.

Ogg is part of a wave of D.A. candidates who ran in 2016 on explicitly reform-minded campaigns and unseated "tough-on-crime" prosecutors. She defeated incumbent D.A. Devon Anderson. As I reported in November:

Anderson is perhaps most notorious for holding a rape victim in jail for a month to ensure she testified, but Harris County has numerous other systemic problems with how it administers justice.

A joint report by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU released this fall documented how Harris County aggressively prosecutes the war on drugs, ruining people's lives for miniscule amounts of drugs. According to the report, "data provided to us by Texas shows that 53 percent of drug possession arrests in Harris County (in and around Houston) were for marijuana, compared with 39 percent in nearby Dallas County."

Faulty drug tests have led Harris County to lead in the country in wrongful convictions, with at least 73 exonerations for drug possession since 2010.

As one of her first acts as district attorney, Ogg fired 37 line prosecutors, several of them for alleged misconduct.

As I recently reported, criminal justice reform groups are beginning to turn their attention and resources to the county and local level, where the vast majority of prison admissions come from. If there's going to be a real shift in the U.S. criminal justice system, it's going to happen in places like Harris County.

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  1. Harris County? Soooooo blind broken squirrel clocks?

    1. Hickory dickory dock
      Two squirrels ran up the clock
      The clock struck one
      But the other one got away

    2. At first I read that as “blind broken squirrel cocks.” I’ve been spending too much time here, I think.

  2. Oh damn, this is just the setup for a massive nutpunch later this afternoon, isn’t it.

    1. *nut punch*
      Here’s a sample.

      1. There’s a long nut-punch story in the works, but I think you’re safe for today.

        1. Thanks for the warning. I’m’a go stock up on Oxy and ice packs.

    1. Wait a minute…C.J., Crusty Juggler!?!????
      If that’s the case, where’s Agile Cyborg then?

      1. I like to think he’s in a meadow somewhere chasing butterflies.

  3. ‘Montgomery County will not become a sanctuary for dope smokers,” Ligon said’

    I’ve got news for you asshole

  4. Wow. Good call by DA Ogg.

  5. That’s what we call a good start. Why can’t we get someone that intelligent for AG?

  6. This is a good thing, but…..

    It’s still rule by whim, not by law. I’m not In favor of the marijuana laws being treated this way. It just makes possession not a bignore deal now, but maybe In a year or two when the winds change, it Is a big deal again. I’m more In favor of the law being enforced as written to its own disastrous ends. This softening of the consequences does nothing to actual get again the root of the problem-the laws themselves. Enforcing the law as written will allow more people to see the absurdity of the law and I think will hasten the demise of the law.

    1. I’m more In favor of the law being enforced as written to its own disastrous ends.

      Until it’s enacted on you with disastrous ends.

      1. And for how many more decades?

        1. This half ass enforcement guarantees that the laws will last many more decades.

          1. Not really. This is one of those first steps toward a law’s abolishment. I say abolishment and not repeal, because a law can be unenforced and ignored enough to be considered abolished, but it can still be technically on the books. Decades from now there may be some remaining states who still have pot prohibition laws on their books, but I’ll bet you they won’t be enforced the way they are now. Fewer people will be harmed during that whole process than if the law was enforced to the hilt.

      2. I get it. I really do. I don’t want a prosecutor to come down on me like a ton of bricks. I really dont.

        I also don’t want to in the habit of possessing marijuana mostly consequence free for also few years, then all of a sudden the political winds change and the same act that was mostly consequence free a week ago now has disastrous consequences. Rule by human whim is not a gill good thing.

        1. I don’t think that enforcing stupid laws to the hilt will actually cause their repeal, but I do think that when laws are ignored more and more over time, eventually they tend to become forgotten (like local laws prohibiting puppet shows on Sundays etc that are still on the books). And in that whole time fewer people overall have been harmed.

        2. Oh, and “rule” by human whim is all you’re ever going to get.

    2. I’m more In favor of the law being enforced as written to its own disastrous ends.

      Nope. Much better for someone in a position of authority to stand up and say I am not going to do this anymore. The first provides cover for the second, and so on.

    3. As a resident of Harris County, fuck that. Besides the county alone can’t change state law. Not enforcing bullshit, unconstitutional and immoral laws is perfectly fine.

  7. while saving the county millions of dollars in court, jail, and drug lab costs

    I don’t see how. The “perps” are made to pay for all that shit. It’s all a racket, don’t you know?

  8. I’m jealous of Houston’s libertarian moment. Maybe the other 4 big county DAs will take notice. You’d think Travis county would.

    1. The Lege hates us enough already without attracting their attention this way. If Williamson* Co goes in this direction, however, look for significant change.

      *Williamson is the county immediately north of Travis Co. Williamson’s motto could be “We Are The Opposite of Austin In Everything.”

      1. Williamson’s motto would be better phrased “We are the opposite of the skyscraper filled downtown of Austin and about 10 miles surrounding, and identical to the burbs on the fringes.”

  9. I don’t get to pick and choose which laws I enforce.

    “So long as the perpetrator is not wearing a badge, he or she will face the consequences prescribed under the law!”

    I would also follow the money in Houston. Does whoever runs the diversion program have any ties with the prosecutor?

    1. Does whoever runs the diversion program have any ties with the prosecutor?

      I was wondering the same thing. It wouldn’t surprise me if they do.

      1. sadly…probably true :/

  10. “Unlike Harris County, Montgomery County will not become a sanctuary for dope smokers,” Ligon said in response to the new policy.

    Did anyone else picture this scumbag looking and sounding like Sheriff Buford T. Justice?

    Oh, and fuck off, slaver. *fires up woodchipper*

  11. “At 107,000 cases over the last ten years, we have spent in excess of $250 million dollars collectively prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety,” Ogg said. “Additionally, the collateral damage to our workforce is immeasurable?because what we have done is we have disqualified, unnecessarily, thousands of people from greater job, housing and education opportunities by giving them a criminal record for what is in effect a minor law violation.”

    Is Ogg getting ready to retire? Public officials are not allowed to speak the obvious truth so long as they have any interest in serving in a public job. The police union will be along shortly to explain the details to Ogg.

  12. It’s raining on California’s central coast today.

    This area missed most of the rain storms that hit LA, SF, and Sierra Nevada mountain range earlier this winter.
    Water levels on the central coast Lake Cachuma and Lake Jameson are still low but the ground is saturated and this storm will replenish them.

    It’s been a long time since we’ve rain like this.

    1. And you being an ungrateful looney Californian bastard didn’t bother to thank our beloved leader for that rain.

  13. ‘I don’t get to pick and choose which laws I enforce.”

    What a steaming pile of horseshit. Bring out the woodchipper.

  14. RE: Houston D.A. Will No Longer Prosecute Pot Cases, Outraging Other Prosecutors
    This is why we can’t have nice things.

    Kudos to the Houston DA.
    Fuck all the other prosecutors who want to micromanage our lives.

  15. Libertarian moment?

    Am i asleep or did i see one sense of sanity today?

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