Friday, January 25, 2013

So what's Plan B?

Former Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos angered many in the criminal (in)justice establishment (including my colleague Murray Newman) when she announced that her office would not prosecute felony drug cases when the drugs seized weighed less than .01 grams.

Her decision not to prosecute these so-called "trace cases" was based on her belief that the defense should have the opportunity to have the substance re-tested by an independent lab. If the amount of dope was under .01 grams, there wasn't enough to permit a second test.

She also made the decision to combat overcrowding in the Harris County Jail. Many of these cases had to do with crack cocaine or methamphetamine residue found in a pipe. If the defendant couldn't afford to post bail, he or she would sit in the county jail until their case was resolved.

The policy also took into account the inequity of charging folks with state jail felonies for possessing a less than usable amount of dope.

Well, those days are gone now.

As expected, the new District Attorney, Mike Anderson, announced on Thursday that he was taking Ms. Lykos' policy, wadding it up and tossing it in the trash. No more pussy-footing around. No more coddling these little dopeheads. Nope. That won't cut in in the Anderson administration.

Residue in that pipe? You're going down hard. Felony conviction. Probation if you're lucky.

It makes you wonder just what Mike Anderson has been smoking. People carrying around glass pipes with dope residue aren't peddling crack and crystal. They are addicts. They have a problem. Arresting them and tossing them in jail isn't going to solve it. Treating it as a criminal problem won't solve it. Addiction is a public health issue and needs to be treated as such.

Oh, Mr. Anderson said those folks need treatment and he could see them being placed on probation where they can be monitored.

Well, if you're really concerned about their well-being, Mr. Anderson, you need to throw away the criminal (in)justice model of treating drug addiction and let the medical professionals deal with it. Using the stick of prison to force addicts to eat the carrot of treatment hasn't solved the problem and won't solve it.

State District Judge Michael McSpadden, hardly who you would consider a flaming liberal, thinks it's nuts to prosecute those cases as felonies. You might want to listen to what he has to say, Mr. Anderson. You might learn a thing or two along the way.

Mike Anderson's plan will result in more people being tagged with felony convictions and in a jail that will be busting at the seams. All those new detainees are going to have to be housed someplace and that means more contracts with other counties to house our inmates. Or maybe yet another referendum on building a new jail.

Ms. Lykos may have made some serious missteps in her four years in charge of the DA's Office, but her policy on trace cases was an instance in which she got it right. Now we'll just have to wait and see how long it takes for Mike Anderson to realize that, too.

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