Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg was recently honored with the Lone Star Award from the Association of Substance Abuse Programs, in recognition of her outstanding leadership and distinctive contributions to substance use and recovery support services in Texas.
After the award reception, Ogg answered a few questions about her philosophy when it comes to reforming how the criminal justice system addresses mental health.
Q: You’ve been called a leader when it comes to the intersection of criminal justice and mental health including substance abuse treatment. What are you most proud of?
A: We’ve diverted thousands of people away from jail, and we haven’t seen any negative impact to public safety. When we stopped prosecuting people for most marijuana cases and there was no trouble in the streets as a result. We diverted the mentally ill from going to jail and created solutions that were bipartisan, like sending them to Ed Emmett Mental Health Diversion Center. I may have received the award, but it belongs to everyone who has worked for these results.
Q: What would you say is your guiding principle on this issue?
A: The Harris County jail shouldn’t be the largest mental health facility in the state of Texas, as it was for years before my administration. That’s why we’ve now diverted more than 4,000 people from jail, away from violent jail populations where they don’t do well and into stabilizing environments.
Q: You’ve said that in addition to better outcomes for mentally ill individuals, diversion actually costs the county less money?
A: Yes. Justice System Partners, a non-profit consulting firm, evaluated the Judge Ed Emmett Mental Health Diversion Program in October 2020 and found, among other things, that for every $1 spent on diversion, the county avoided spending $5.54 on criminal justice costs.
Q: Mental health diversion is a just one of the ways your office diverts people from the jail, but your Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program has kept thousands of others from ever going to jail, right?
A: Yes, we’re proud that our program has diverted thousands of people away from jail along with the costs and fees of incarceration and allows them to take a class to avoid penalties saves approximately $18 million annually in prosecutorial and law enforcement budgets.
Obviously, some of those people would be better served by being diverted into mental health services and last year, the DAO’s Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program referred 280 people into behavioral health services.