The Trace Experiment

 Posted on December 10, 2009 in Uncategorized

In response to the Houston Police Department's concerns that the DA's new policy of not charging <10mg controlled substance cases as felonies, but rather as Class C misdemeanor paraphernalia cases, will result in their not being able to pad their statistics with felonies that require little work result in a rise in the sort of crime, like theft and burglary, that even rational voters care about (as well as prostitution), Harris County DA Pat Lykos has said that she "will re-evaluate a new policy downgrading crack pipe residue charges in six months" (Brian Rogers). (Brian scooped the rest of the media on the new policy when he got back from vacation because he's the only reporter in town who reads my blog.)

This will be spun as a sign of weakness by those who oppose the new policy because they will have to work harder it puts Harris County's citizens in danger. It is just the opposite.

Bearing in mind that a) the people who make and keep the statistics have a dog in the hunt; and b) six months may not be a long enough period to show the results of the new policy, Pat Lykos is entirely right to reevaluate the policy in six months. That she is willing to do so shows confidence in her decision.

What we're really talking about here is a small number of people-the Harris County Sheriff's Office guesses that 750 or fewer people are in Harris County's jails for possession of trace amounts of controlled substances; there are a few people serving sentences of between six months and two years in State Jail as well for trace cases. The Office of Applied Studies of the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that 8% of Americans over the age of 12 were current illicit drug users. Harris County has almost 4 million people. If (interpolating from Houston 2000 numbers here) 81.4% of those people are over 12 and 8% of those people are current drug users, then more than 250,000 Harris County residents are current illicit drug users.

In a county of nearly four million, can incarcerating 3% or 6% of the illicit drug users at any one time make a statistically significant difference in the amount of violent or property crime? It might, though I haven't noticed any shortage of methheads wandering up and down my street under the current regime; I think Pat Lykos has indicated that she is willing to consider the possibility that things will get worse under her new policy.

If the resources taken to prosecute those 750 or 1500 people are then turned toward investigating and prosecuting thieves, burglars, and robbers will there be a net loss in public safety over six months? Pat Lykos is betting that there won't. If she's wrong, she can try something different, and if she's right she has improved the criminal justice system for all time.

Bureaucracies thrive on stasis; change frightens them. But the one thing we know about the WOD is that whatever we've been doing for the last 30 years is not working. There is nothing wrong with lawyers, judges, and prosecutors using the criminal justice system as a laboratory, and it's refreshing to see elected officials in Harris County willing to use that laboratory and try something new.

It's even more refreshing to see a Republican elected official who is confident enough to admit that she doesn't have all the answers.

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