Harris County DA Marijuana Diversion Program To Ramps Up Protection & Focuses On Attacking Serious Crimes
“Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself; and where they are, they should be changed. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana in private for personal use…” – Former President Jimmy Carter
HOUSTON- Like the Executive Orders from President Donald Trump, the Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has come out the starting gates not just making promises, but delivering quickly on groundbreaking changes that could bring sanctuary for some, but salvation to others.
The Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program is her first signature move to separate her and Harris County from the norms of marijuana prosecution and has her venturing into new frontiers she hopes changes the lives of those offenders whose poor choices have led them down that path.
“Harris County has spent more than $200 million in the past decade on more than 100,000 cases of misdemeanor marijuana possession,” Ogg said. “The endeavor has had no tangible public safety benefit for the people of Harris County, yet has deprived neighborhoods of officer time that could have been spent patrolling communities; jail beds that could have been used for violent criminals, crime lab resources needed for DNA testing, and judicial court time that should be spent bringing serious criminals to justice.”
The offices will use its Texas Legislature-mandated discretion to divert offenders in possession of small amounts of marijuana starting March 1.
Accountability for breaking the law will remain an all important component of the office’s new policy as all offenders will be required to meet eligibility standards and complete a four-hour education program or face traditional arrest and charging procedures for the offense.
The goal of the program is to ensure that the limited resources of prosecutors, local law enforcement and the Harris County Jail are used to increase public safety and see that those in possession of misdemeanor amounts of marijuana are not stigmatized by criminal records that limit their employment, education and housing opportunities.
The new diversion program announced by Ogg is being supported by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and Precinct 1 Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis.
“We’ve been looking into this for quite some time… we must always be smart and safe with out decisions, but if we can achieve that while improving and enhancing the system, why wouldn’t we pursue it,” Turner said. “It makes no sense to continue to crowd our jail cells when there is a better way that will allow our officers to concentrate more of their time in other areas that will have a greater impact on public safety.”
Ogg emphasized during the announcement that her office remains committed to public safety, responsible use of taxpayer money and equal justice for all.
“With limited resources, we need to be efficient, smart and thoughtful on fighting crime,” Acevedo said. “We need to focus efforts on fighting violent crimes and investigating home and business burglaries, not on minor drug offenses. Protecting lives and property need to be our highest priorities.”
Ogg acknowledged that her officer recognizes that the possession of marijuana is illegal in the state and that the police, when acting in a constitutional manner, have the authority to arrest offenders who break the law.
It specifically focuses attention on and directs efforts to those who commit crimes against people and property, including robberies, burglaries, rapes, murders and other serious crimes.
“This new policy simply reflects a collaborative effort between the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and local law enforcement to direct our efforts at those who commit crimes against people and property,” she added. “It is also greater commitment to the greater Houston business, spiritual and labor communities to keep people in the workforce whenever possible by diverting them around the criminal justice system, before they are charged with the crime of misdemeanor possession of marijuana.”
Sheriff Gonzalez agreed. “I am encouraged by the collaborative efforts to reform our criminal justice system underway in Harris County. Working together, we can identify practical solutions to reform our criminal justice system, while remaining steadfast in our duty to protect all citizens of Harris County.”
Ogg also noted other exceptions to the changes that will not apply or qualify individuals for the diversion.
THE FINE PRINT
“This office recognizes there are circumstances when the possession of even small amounts of marijuana may threaten the health and welfare of community members,” she said. “Those offenders who possess marijuana in drug free zones near schools and in correctional facilities will be charged and prosecuted.”
Additionally, individuals under court supervision by bond, probation or deferred adjudication are not eligible for pre-charge diversion under the new policy because they have pre-existing agreements that disallow any law violation.
Ellis said the program is a definite step in the right direction.
“This new program instituted by District Attorney Ogg is a positive first step towards improving public safety and creating a fairer and more equal justice system for all,” he said. “We must move away from wasteful and inefficient policies of mass incarceration and shift toward more effective and less destructive smart-on-crime strategies for low-level non-violent offenses.”