Harris County DA announces lighter penalties for misdemeanor marijuana offenders

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HOUSTON -- County and city officials announced a new policy of dealing with offenders caught in possession of small amounts of marijuana. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, along with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and other city officials, laid out the new guidelines at a press conference Thursday morning.

Ogg says there has been an "enormous waste of taxpayer dollars on misdemeanor marijuana offenses."

"The Harris County District Attorney's Office is committed to public safety, responsible use of taxpayer dollars and equal justice, and to that end, we are implementing beginning and effective March 1, 2017, (a policy) which will divert all misdemeanor marijuana cases and their offenders around the jail, away from bail, into an accountable class where they will learn better decision making and get out of our criminal justice system without a criminal record."

During the 2016 race for DA, Ogg spoke of implementing a new policy for low-level offenders as part of her platform. Making good on her campaign promise, she rolled out the new set of guidelines.

Ogg said under the new policy, misdemeanor offenders caught small amount of pot will not be arrested, ticketed or required to appear in court, in exchange for taking a drug education class.

Ogg said the adjustments will allow officials to use taxpayers' money to go after more serious criminals.

"The amount of money that is currently being spent in Harris County annually to prosecute misdemeanor possession of marijuana cases is over $26 million a year," Ogg said. "We as the leadership here in Harris County believe those tax dollars should be spent making you and your families safer. That is the reason behind the implementation of this new program."

Ogg says out of the 107,000 cases processed over the last 10 years, the county has spent in excess of $250 million prosecuting a crime that has produced "no tangible evidence of improved public safety."

Additionally, she said, the collateral damage to our workforce is unmeasurable.

"What we have done is we have disqualified unnecessarily thousands of people from greater jobs, housing and education opportunities by giving them a criminal record for what is, in fact, a minor law violation," Ogg said.

More than 160 law enforcement agencies in Harris County have come together in agreement to give the new policy a try.

"It is illegal in Texas to possess marijuana. This is not a grab for legislative power. We are not decriminalizing marijuana, we are not legalizing marijuana, we are simply doing something that is within lawful discretion of every DA in the country, which is to pre-charge, divert all people in possession of misdemeanor amounts of marijuana as long as they are eligible for the program," Ogg explained.

So what does this all mean?

Who will be prosecuted?

  • Those who possess marijuana in drug-free zones around schools will continue to be prosecuted
  • Those who possess marijuana at correctional facilities will continue to be prosecuted
  • Those who possess marijuana and are already on bond, deferred adjudication or probation will be prosecuted

How will the program work?

If you are stopped in your car, on the street, and you are found by law enforcement to be in possession of a misdemeanor amount of marijuana.....

  • You will be advised of the availability of the program
  • You will be advised if you are eligible for the program
  • The law enforcement officer will contact the DA's Office to approve the stop and make sure the stop was lawful and that probable cause existed

If you are found to be eligible for the program:

  • You will be offered the chance to sign an acknowledgment form promising to take a 4-hour cognitive decision making class, for the cost of $150. The class must be completed within 90 days
  • If you can not afford the program, arrangements can be made by contacting the probation department
  • The marijuana/ contraband will be seized and, upon completion of the class, it will be destroyed. There will be no criminal record for it
  • Those who fail to take the class or fullfill the obligations set forth, AN ARREST WARRANT WILL BE ISSUED

"We are going to watch our statistics, we are going to monitor this program all the way through and see what the evidence shows," Ogg said. "If there are repeat offenders and they are committing the same crime over and over again, then we will adjust that and make arrangements to treat them differently. If we find out that there are more indigent people than we thought then the cost may change."

Ogg said comparatively  -- in terms of being arrested, going through the booking process, going to jail, having a stigmatizing conviction or even a record for deferred --  convictions for the low-level offenses stop people in their tracks.

"It changes their path in life, it limits their opportunities and ultimately we are depriving our workforce of the strength that it needs to meet the challenges of a growing economy in this region, and that is priceless," Ogg said.

What can be saved?

Based on crude calculations, Ogg said the following has been spent:

  • Police have been spending about $1.3 million to arrest, transport and book misdemeanor marijuana offenders
  • Crime labs collectively have spent more than $1.7 million testing approximately 10,000 cases per year
  •  Housing misdemeanor marijuana offenders at the Harris County Jail has cost $13 million

"We want a higher quality of life in Harris County for our residents. We want to take our collective resources - which you pay - to go to fighting the real criminals out there; the burglars, the rapists, the robbers who plague every corner of our community," Ogg said. "Historically in Houston, our leadership comes from the front and that is why I am so excited and so proud to thank and welcome our partners in this extraordinary effort to divert people around the system so we can make our families and your families safer. This is the largest collaboration of law enforcement with the District Attorney's Office to do this."

Ogg ended, to thunderous applause from fellow officials, with renewing her promise made while fighting for the DA seat.

"On day 47 of this administration, we are delivering on the promise that I made to the public to try to usher in a new era of criminal justice, where public safety is paramount and criminal law violations are prioritized," she said.