02/17/17 Kim Ogg

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Kim Ogg, DA of Houston re Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program stopping 12,000 arrests per year w/ Sylvester Turner Mayor of Houston, Art Acevedo Houston Police Chief, Ed Gonzalez Sheriff of Houston & Texas Rep Joe Moody re decrim bill

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TRANSCRIPT

CULTURAL BAGGAGE

FEBRUARY 17, 2017

TRANSCRIPT

DEAN BECKER: I am Dean Becker, your host. Our goal for this program is to expose the fraud, misdirection, and the liars whose support for drug war empowers our terrorist enemies, enriches barbarous cartels, and gives reason for existence to tens of thousands of violent US gangs who profit by selling contaminated drugs to our children. This is Cultural Baggage.

Hi, this is Dean Becker. Thank you for joining us on this edition of Cultural Baggage. I'm a happy man today. Today, the district attorney of Houston, Harris County, Texas, Kim Ogg, brought forward her proposal, her new arrangement, to no longer arrest those in possession of minor amounts of marijuana. No record, no lingering effects if you will. She had great folks there in support of this: the sheriff, the police chief, the constables, the mayor, the council, the commissioners, bunch of preachers, all standing in support of what she's up to. Let's get to it.

HARRIS COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY KIM OGG: I'm Kim Ogg. I'm the elected district attorney of Harris County, and we are here with friends and guests, and elected officials this morning, almost too numerous to mention, but I'd like to try and introduce them. We'll kind of go from left to right, and I'm going to start with the mayor, because I know my protocol.

So, we are joined by Mayor Sylvester Turner; Councilmembers Boykins, Kubosh, Gallegos; they're all city council. We are joined by Commissioner Rodney Ellis. We are joined by our sheriff, Ed Gonzalez. We are joined by our police chief, Art Acevedo. We are joined by constables, the oldest law enforcement group in the state, Alan Rosen and Sherman Eagleton. We are joined by Chief Craig Goralski, head of the Houston Area Police Chiefs Association.

We are joined by pastors from our religious and spiritual community, too numerous to name all of them, but I'd like each of you to talk to any of them, they have been collaborative partners throughout this process. Who am I missing? We are joined by community activists, like Johnny Mata. We are joined by District Court Judge Kelli Johnson. We are joined by community activists, like Tarsha Jackson of Texas Organizing Project. And we are joined by my brothers and sisters in the district attorney's office.

And as always, I thank the media, I'm a lover of the First Amendment and we appreciate the work you do, you ensure our freedom. Thank you for being here.

Let me begin by saying that 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 a new policy beginning effective March the First, 2017, 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 out of our criminal justice system without a criminal record.

Let me say, when we began to crunch the numbers, as you all know, there was a spirited election held in 2016, and misdemeanor marijuana was on the platform agenda. And we talked about the enormous waste of taxpayer dollars currently being spent on the prosecution of marijuana, and I want to talk to you just a tiny bit about the economics of that.

You know, we ran on a policy that we were against spending $10 million on the low end of crime, when it could be spent going after serious criminals. But we were wrong, about the $10 million dollars, and I would invite each of you to look at your press packets. 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.

That's your tax dollars. We as the leadership here in Harris County believe those tax dollars should be spent making you and your families safer, and that is the policy reason behind the implementation of this new program.

At a hundred thousand cases over the last ten years, 107,000 to be exact, we have spent in excess of $250 million collectively, that's a quarter of a billion dollars, prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety. Additionally, the collateral damage to our workforce is unmeasurable, 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.

At any given time, this crime takes up ten percent of our court dockets, and we happen to believe that our law enforcement officers should spend more time patrolling the streets, investigating and arresting serious offenders, burglars, robbers, rapists, and that is why in collaboration with more than 160 law enforcement agencies here in Harris County, we have come together in agreement: give this policy a try, because we believe that law enforcement efforts can and will be spent prosecuting serious criminals as opposed to taking the time it really costs them off the street to arrest and prosecute misdemeanor offenders for possession of simple, small amounts of marijuana.

We believe that our crime labs are spending too much money prosecuting drug cases. As you may know, in Harris County, every single piece of contraband that's seized by law enforcement is tested. That's not exactly true in the city, but the cost to the labs is enormous, and our constituents believe those labs should be testing DNA, and working on cases where people have been victimized.

When it comes to the crime, 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 the 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're eligible for the program.

And what do I mean by that? We believe that there are circumstances where possession of even the tiniest amounts of marijuana threaten the health and safety and welfare of community members. So, offenders who possess marijuana in drug-free zones around schools will continue to be prosecuted. Those who possess in a correctional facility, will continue to be prosecuted. Those individuals who are caught with marijuana who are already on bond, deferred adjudication, or probation, have superseding agreements with those courts, which are require no law violation, they too will be arrested.

And still, we believe that this program will impact up to 10,000 people a year.

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 that this program is available. You will be advised if you're eligible for the program. The law enforcement officer will contact the DA's office to approve the stop and make sure that the stop itself was lawful, that probable cause existed.

If you are found to be eligible, you will be offered a chance to sign an acknowledgement form promising to take a decision making class, cognitive decision making class, takes four hours and costs $150. You'll be required to do that within 90 days. If you are too poor to afford the program, we will make arrangements for you, you simply have to contact us and the probation department. And that will be explained in the form that is provided the offender.

The contraband will be seized, upon completion of the class it will be destroyed, and you will have no criminal record. If you fail to take the test, I'm sorry, if you fail to take the class and fulfill your obligations that you promised the officer and our office that you will complete, then an arrest warrant will be issued and you will be arrested for misdemeanor possession of marijuana.

We are going to watch our statistics. We are going to monitor this program all the way through, and see what the evidence shows. If there are repeat offenders and they are bordering on the serial level, committing the same crime over and over, then we'll adjust our program 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.

But comparatively, in terms of being arrested, going through the booking process, going to jail, having a stigmatizing conviction, even a record for deferred, it stops people in their tracks, it changes their path in life, it limits their opportunities, and ultimately we're depriving our workforce of the strength that it needs to meet the challenges of a growing economy in this region. And that is priceless.

So, when it comes to the economics of misdemeanor prosecution, what we can tell you is, based on crude calculations, but they're all documentable, from published data, we invite you to look at them, police have been spending about $1.3 million for taking time, about four hours of law enforcement stop, to arrest, transport, and book a misdemeanor offender. Our crime labs collectively are spending over $1.7 million testing 10,000, approximately 10,000 cases a year.

Our jail, sheriff, has been spending as much as $13 million a year housing marijuana offenders. And how, with only a few in jail at a time? Well, the problem is that some people stay a lot longer than the average of six days, but 10,000 people on average spend six days in jail. Now if you have a job, if you have children, and childcare, if you have home responsibilities to a parent, these six days can change your life.

And once that criminal record attaches, that will change your life forever. And not for the better. We want a higher quality of life in Harris County for our residents. We want to take our collective strength and our law enforcement resources, which you pay by seventy cents of every tax dollar toward, to go to finding the real criminals out there, the burglars, the rapists, the robbers, who plague every corner of our community.

We believe our constituents demanded that when they elected me to this office. Historically in Houston, our leadership comes from the front. And that's why I am so proud to thank and to welcome our partners in this extraordinary effort to divert people around the system so that we can make our families and your families safer. At the end of the day, this is the largest collaboration of law enforcement with the district attorney's office in the country, to do this. We've seen it done successfully in Brooklyn, the sky did not fall, it did not become a haven for drug users, in fact very little changed except that law enforcement and the criminal justice community is now able to better fight serious crime.

So, there is a precedent for what we're doing. It is lawful under Texas law. We take all criticism, really with enthusiasm. I can tell you that in working with all of these people up here, we've improved this program and changed it dramatically, but on day 47 of this administration, we're delivering on promises that I made to the public, and to each of you, and that many of us made, to try to usher in a new era of criminal justice, where public safety is paramount, and criminal law violations are prioritized. Thank you.

DEAN BECKER: Again, that was Kim Ogg, the new district attorney of Harris County, Houston, Texas, describing her new misdemeanor marijuana diversion program, which takes effect on March First.

You are listening to Cultural Baggage on Pacifica Radio and the Drug Truth Network. We'll be back with more from this press conference right after this.

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DEAN BECKER: Again, you're listening to Cultural Baggage. This is Dean Becker. We're tuned into a recent press conference on the misdemeanor marijuana diversion program. Next, we hear from the mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner.

HOUSTON MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: I certainly want to start off by acknowledging and thanking the DA, Kim Ogg, for taking a very, a bold step in enhancing public safety and doing it in a cost efficient manner. This is not -- we're not decriminalizing misdemeanor use of marijuana. It is a diversionary program, and so I want to thank you for it. It's always good to be with the city council members who are here, Councilman Dwight Boykins and Council member Mike Kubosh, Councilman Robert Gallegos, and certainly with someone who's been in the state senate, whose emphasis has been on criminal justice, who's now commissioner of Precinct One, Rodney Ellis, it's good to be with him.

Again, to Chief Acevedo, to Sheriff Gonzalez, to the constables who are here and all the others, well, we've been looking into finding smarter ways to deal with offenders possessing small amounts of marijuana. Our goal is to find better ways to handle this issue, that will benefit the offenders and allow law enforcement to concentrate on those problems that affect our neighborhoods. And I think, and I know the DA, Kim Ogg, has done just that.

When it comes to low level drug offenses, especially those offenders possessing small amounts of marijuana, the normal criminal court process may not be the best approach. Counseling and education, diversionary programs of this kind, instead of punishment, may deter people from repeating their mistakes without a criminal stigma associated with arrest or for a conviction.

Of course, we must always be smart, and safe, about law enforcement decisions. We don't want to do anything that will make a situation worse, but business as usual is not a solution. And I want to thank Kim Ogg for delivering on her promise, and taking an innovative, what I believe a very smart approach to dealing with our criminal justice system.

DEAN BECKER: Next up, we hear a bit from the sheriff of Harris County, Houston, Ed Gonzalez.

HARRIS COUNTY SHERIFF ED GONZALEZ: I've always been committed to working with my partners in Harris County's criminal justice leadership to identify smart policy reforms to our criminal justice system. The misdemeanor marijuana diversion program will ease the processing of prisoners in the jails and main processing center. This program means that certain drug offenders will never set foot inside our doors, alleviating a great deal of administrative duties.

A subject arrested for a Class A or B marijuana possession would normally be subject to up to eight to 12 hours of administrative processing prior to bonding and release. This will no longer be the case. I'm encouraged that in short order, District Attorney Ogg has implemented one smart solution to help our struggling criminal justice system. I applaud you and thank you very much. It's extremely helpful and will benefit the community greatly.

DEAN BECKER: The last voice we'll share from this conference is Houston's police chief, Art Acevedo.

HOUSTON POLICE CHIEF ART ACEVEDO: From my perspective, I think, when you see all these police chiefs here, the constables, and the leader of the chiefs of police here in Harris County, what you're seeing is unity, because what some may characterize as being soft on crime, as the mayor said earlier we're trying to be smart on crime. This is a community being focused on crime, we're focusing on what's important to the people of this community, which is life, limb, and their property.

Having said that, we all need to acknowledge the fact that this is a living document on policy that the mayor has directed me to keep a very close eye on, to make sure if there's anything that needs to be changed, we can change it. So, the sky will not fall, I can tell you there's already critics out there. We've been down this path before, in my old department, and rather than see an uptick in crime, what we did in the city of Austin is we reduced violent crime by, between 2007 and 2015, by over 40 percent. Some --

DEAN BECKER: Starting at the exact same time as this press conference in Houston, was a press conference in Austin, at our legislature, featuring Joe Moody, who has a marijuana bill he's bringing forward. This is Representative Joe Moody.

TEXAS STATE REPRESENTATIVE JOE MOODY: -- That the discussion about marijuana policy in Texas has come a very long way in the last couple of years. I think that our constituents and the people we represent want to see reform in our policy, and slowly but surely, the people in this building are coming to the same conclusion.

There are four paths that we can travel down, when it comes to marijuana policy in Texas. We can keep the current path, which is to criminalize all possession, at various weights, from misdemeanor level all the way up to felonies. We can, on the opposite end, move into a retail market like you see in other states, where you tax and regulate marijuana.

We can do medical marijuana, which Texas actually did, last session, for the first time ever recognizing the medicinal value of cannabis and signing a bill into law called the Compassionate Use Act.

The fourth way is the way that my bill would change marijuana policy in Texas, and to give you a bit about -- background about how I got here and why I'm interested in this topic, I was a prosecutor for years before serving here, and so I handled my fair share of marijuana cases. Most of what I saw were what you'd expect: young people who hadn't been in real trouble before. These cases competed with more serious issues like domestic violence and DWI, crimes that hurt families and endangered the public.

With limited time and resources, I know where those cases fell on my priority list. However if we look at the funds that we spend, the picture is a little bit different. We spend much more every year policing pot than we make from fines. There are about 70,000 arrests a year for marijuana possession in Texas, misdemeanor marijuana possession in Texas, which represents about six and a half percent of all arrests in the state, with a total criminal justice budget of roughly $11.2 billion, that puts the price tag for marijuana enforcement of misdemeanor level at roughly $734 million every single year.

Now I'm joined by some very strong voices in this movement. I'll introduce some in a bit. Many of them are from law enforcement, including Tim McLemee, who's a retired peace officer who worked with a drug task force; Nick Novello, who's active duty Dallas Police Department; and Jay Hall, a retired lieutenant from Harris, from the Houston Police Department.

And, I'll let them speak for themselves and they'll be available for interviews as well, but, I think I can tell you in my experience working with law enforcement, no police officer or prosecutor anywhere in this state brags about the kid with a joint case, because they don't -- those cases don't make us any safer, they didn't get involved in law enforcement to work on those kind of cases. In fact, using our resources for those cases make us less safe, because an officer who makes a marijuana arrest is off the street for sometimes up to half of their shift, dealing with processing and paperwork.

These problems aren't just, you know, these problems aren't just measured in money. Marijuana prosecution is also the jail that's overcrowded, that we have to transfer inmates to other counties; it's the longer line at the county clerk's office; it's the prosecutor who's a bit less prepared for his or her domestic violence trial; it's the police response time that's a minute longer, which can be a lifetime in an emergency, because some officers are tied up on marijuana arrests instead of patrolling the streets.

Our arrest numbers aren't going down, so we know that these don't serve any deterrent effect. What my bill would do is make possession of a small amount of marijuana a civil issue instead of a crime. Police won't make arrests for it, they'll issue citations telling the offender when and where to show up at a justice of the peace court. The marijuana will then be seized and eventually destroyed, just like it is today.

In court, the offender will pay a fine, or if the judge allows it, take a drug education course or do community service instead. However it's resolved, there will not be a criminal conviction.

DEAN BECKER: Later in the afternoon, I was able to reach Houston's district attorney, Kim Ogg, for a quick phone interview.

The fact of the matter is, ma'am, you had law enforcement lined up across the back, you had preachers on the side, you had commissioners and just folks who are standing in support of you right there with you, did you not?

KIM OGG: I did, it was really an exciting moment for those of us in law enforcement and criminal justice who believe that the status quo has failed us and that we have to try something different, something smarter, something fairer. And starting by treating low level misdemeanor marijuana offenders and their cases differently, is a good first start.

Not to mention we're going to save millions of dollars, which I'm going to then lead law enforcement into redirecting at the most serious criminals: burglars, rapists, and robbers. And I think the HPD chief has already done that in Austin, at his prior job, and I'm thrilled that he and the sheriff were both front and center on either side of me along with the mayor.

DEAN BECKER: Last year, I interviewed you, the sheriff, the police chief, and I like to think that I helped you guys find a point of agreement and a willingness to move forward. Would you agree with that?

KIM OGG: I would, I believe that honest discussion about issues like our failed drug war in America, and the cost, the human toll, and the actual taxpayer cost, are important facts that the public needs to know, because when they learn that we've been spending $26 million a year chasing around minor offenders, I think they'll be as disgusted as you and your other friends in law enforcement, and in the progress community in general have been.

And you know, the average citizen, Dean, has been robbed of time on the street that police officers should be patrolling their neighborhoods, resources at crime labs that should be spent testing rape kits, courts that have been focused at the wrong players and instead should be looking to spend their judicial time putting serious offenders away, so it's a very, very exciting time for those of us who have wanted to fight crime in a smarter way.

DEAN BECKER: Oh yes. And, again, it was just an ecstatic moment, I felt that even the media was excited for what you were doing. It was an electric room.

KIM OGG: Well, it was, as you know, I have great respect for the media. I'm a journalism major from UT who couldn't make much of a living at it, and it drove me to law school, and I've always respected and been indebted, I think, to the media for keeping our country free through free press, and so, I felt that they were open, that they didn't ask loaded questions, and that they basically gave me a fair shake.

I thought there was some misreporting about the fact that we were decriminalizing marijuana, which of course I don't have the authority to do. But other than that, I thought it was very, very positive.

DEAN BECKER: I just want to say again, congratulations.

KIM OGG: Well, thank you. I think that we have the political will in Houston, Texas, right now, to make real advancements in the way we handle everyone in this criminal justice system, and that it couldn't come at a more important time, with fear and distrust of government at an all time high, both because of what's happening in Washington and at our state level, I think it's very important that local leaders step out, meet our obligations, and do what the public mandated us to do when they elected us last November, and that is usher in a new era of criminal justice. And I think today was the first big step.

DEAN BECKER: It does my heart good to hear our district attorney saying that this is just the first big step. I think there's much more to come from this DA, sheriff, and police chief. I'll certainly be paying attention.

Again, I remind you, because of prohibition you don't know what's in that bag. Please be careful.

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