The Houston Chronicle reports that Kim Ogg, the Democratic candidate for Harris County District Attorney, has unveiled an ambitious new program to deal with marijuana offenses. Under Texas law, those possessing less than 2 ounces of marijuana commit a Class B Misdemeanor, whereas those possessing between 2 and 4 ounces commit a Class A Misdemeanor. Ogg’s proposal would create a program, a backronym known as G.R.A.C.E. (Government Resource Allocation/Criminal Exemption), that would largely reform enforcement of the current pot laws in Harris County.
State law gives wide discretion for local police to cite-and-release offenders for certain misdemeanor offenses, as opposed to arrest, incarceration and bail. Under such a system, which has already been used in limited circumstances throughout both Travis and Hays County, defendants would immediately be released on their own recognizance, and be expected to show up in court themselves. Much like a traffic ticket (Class C Misdemeanor), if one does not show up to this proceeding, an arrest warrant will be issued and the individual will likely be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
However, if one does show up to this court date, the defendant will be ordered to complete two work days worth of community service, namely picking up trash in the so-called “Clean and Green” program. Once this program is completed by defendants, the case will be dismissed without further court proceedings. Accordingly, the program is more reminiscent of a Pre-Trial Diversion program (colloquially known as DA’s probation) than of Deferred Adjudicated probation. The differences between the latter and this program is that no blemish on one’s permanent record would persist. Furthermore, as best as I can ascertain, the program is not merely limited to those without previous offenses –as most Pre-Trial diversion programs are. Rather, it appears indiscriminately open to all accused of a misdemeanor pot offense.
A couple of years ago, I shadowed an assistant DA in a misdemeanor criminal court for ab0ut a week. What struck me as the most surprising feature of Court was the utter lack of diversity in the cases brought before the court. Driving While Intoxicated, as well as minor possession of marijuana, constituted well over 80% of the crimes. The amount of money that the DA’s office could save by not prosecuting these cases would be extraordinary. More prosecutors could be freed up for unorthodox roles, as well as moved into investigating more serious, violent crimes. Police, meanwhile, could be opened up to investigate similarly more heinous offenses.
The Chronicle article does go out of its way to reference a response to this announcement by incumbent DA Devon Anderson, the Republican candidate. Anderson retorted that she too was looking into some sort of similar program.
“Since the beginning of the year, we have been working with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and the Houston Police Department on a pilot Marijuana Intervention Program that will be implemented this fall,” Anderson said. “Crafting this program is complicated and requires the effort and cooperation of all law enforcement agencies to ensure that we create a program that works and stays in line with the law.”
I think the most interesting item of note is that Anderson replied in a constructive way, not with a substanceless attack that Ogg was somehow soft on crime. That is a HUGE change of pace for a District Attorney’s election in Harris County in the last few years. The tide is turning on the legalization of marijuana –it is like same-sex marriage at this point; no longer if, but when.
Sagacious followers of this publication will be aware of my support for the legalization of cannabis, but such an objective in the short term is just unrealistic in Texas. An arrangement such as this one, with a DA liberalizing the enforcement mechanism for low-level crimes, is probably the best possibility that has a reasonable chance of happening in the near future.
All in all, this just solidifies the positive impression I have about Ogg. She has a proven track record of being tough on crime, so she does not need to pay lip service to ridiculously strict laws in order to prove a point. She will be the anchor of the downballot Democrats, being the inspiration for many to continue voting all the way down Democratic.