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Ogg, law enforcement, community partners mark two-year milestone of Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program

March 29, 2019 

HOUSTON- Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, flanked by law enforcement and community partners, marked the two-year anniversary of the Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program during a press conference, Friday.

Over the last two years, $35,135,520 of Harris County tax dollars were redirected from the arrest and prosecution of misdemeanor marijuana offenders toward enforcement of more serious criminal laws—more than 9,000 individuals have been diverted.

The initiative, started in March 2017, is a pre-charge diversion program offered by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to offenders who would otherwise be arrested and charged with possession of misdemeanor marijuana, regardless of criminal history.  

Houston Police Department, Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department and community leaders all support the program that diverts offenders away from jail and potential convictions, and reallocates agencies’ resources to priority objectives, such as arresting violent offenders and aiding victims of crime.

“This gives law enforcement more time to answer serious calls- rapes, robberies, people in need in our community” Ogg said. “It also allows us to direct the precious resources of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to more important matters. Our prosecutors are stretched thin and we want them working on crimes against victims; marijuana is not that.” 

“This is a real tangible benefit to our community, by leading with smart prosecution,” Harris County District Attorney’s Office Misdemeanor Division Chief Nathan Beedle said. “Our misdemeanor prosecutors are now able to focus on burglary of a motor vehicle, assault on a family member, indecent exposure, DWI cases---this is intelligence-based prosecution.”

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office and nearly 100 local law enforcement agencies joined in collaboration to redirect limited public safety dollars away from low level misdemeanor marijuana offenders and towards offenders committing crimes against people and property.  Ultimately, it is the consensus of criminal justice leadership in Harris County that the public will be safer as a result of this program.


The Economics of Misdemeanor Marijuana Prosecution

Criminal justice data shows that on average 10,000 misdemeanor marijuana cases were prosecuted annually by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office in the decade prior to 2016.  These cases, on any given day, comprised over 10% of the misdemeanor court dockets in the Harris County Criminal Courts at Law.   The routine processing of these cases impacted the budgets of Harris County law enforcement agencies, crime labs, and the Harris County jail in significant ways.  

Calculated generally, the following breakouts illustrate current annual savings based on the current annual marijuana caseload of 7,000 fewer cases. The two year total is:

Police:  $138.48 x 14,000 = $1,938,720

*Anecdotally, law enforcement officers reported spending an average of 4 hours per marijuana arrest. 40,000 police patrol hours calculated at the average local hourly compensation rate  of $34.62 total almost $1m previously spent by front line defenders arresting and transporting marijuana offenders rather than patrolling neighborhoods. 

Crime Labs:  $179 x 14,000 = $2,506,000

It costs $179 for the Harris County crime lab to analyze a single-exhibit case.   Other crime labs report similar testing costs. Previously, the Harris County Institute of Forensic Science analyzes and tests marijuana in every single criminal case, regardless of the case outcome. This wasted valuable crime lab resources. 

Jail:   $865 x 14,000 = $12,110,000

The Harris County Jail is the single largest public safety expense in Harris County.  At $800 booking fee per case  and a minimum of 1 day at $65/day  spent on jailing misdemeanor marijuana offenders, Harris County’s primary public safety asset was being used to house low-risk offenders who posed no real threat to the public at large.

District Attorney:  $478 x 14,000 = $6,692,000

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office expended significant prosecutor time and effort prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana cases – pro-rated, the prosecution of misdemeanor marijuana cases was handled by the equivalent of 8.73 misdemeanor prosecutors and two full-time staff members.  

Indigent Defense:  $440 x 8,120 = $3,572,800

Harris County is constitutionally required to pay for court-appointed defense counsel for indigent defendants at an average cost of $440 per case. 

Courts: $297 x 14,000 = $4,158,000

The court cost for a misdemeanor case is $297.