Kim Ogg, the District Attorney of Harris County, Texas, has made the decision to stop prosecuting cases with very small amounts of drugs, known as “trace cases.” Ogg ran on a promise to make these changes in her 2014 campaign and successful 2016 campaign for District Attorney, and hopes to make better use of resources by not spending them on these cases. This change follows the end of the use of roadside field tests by the police department in July 2017 to decide if suspicious substances were drugs.
In trace cases, the amount of drugs is small enough that they cannot be tested or even used. Hundreds of innocent people in Harris County have pled guilty to drug charges for it to be later discovered that the substances they possessed were not drugs.
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Satana Deberry won the primary on May 8 to become the next District Attorney for Durham County, unseating incumbent District Attorney Roger Echols. She will begin her term in January.
Deberry, who has done criminal justice advocacy and policy work for 18 years, ran as a reform candidate, recognizing issues such money bail, police accountability, and racially discriminatory practices in the criminal justice system.
The Color of Change political action committee, which is part of a large racial justice organization, helped raise awareness about the District Attorney campaign, a race that does not always get attention.
Deberry’s goal is to create accountability for the office of District Attorney itself, from both inside the office and from the community. For example, she plans on doing research on what prosecutions are occurring and why. Additionally, by ending the money bail system for low level felonies, she hopes to keep less people in jail. Read more here.
In a special to the editorial board at the Charlotte Observer, Braxton Winston II, Charlotte City Councilman At-Large, highlighted criminal justice issues. Because of the money bail system, the majority of Charlotte’s jail population has not been convicted of a crime. They simply cannot pay bail. Additionally, African Americans are arrested at larger rates.
Winston also pointed to the promise of positive change with the election of District Attorney Spencer Merriweather. Merriweather won the primary and has no challenger for the position in November. The role of District Attorney is critical because of the power prosecutors have, such as deciding who gets charged and with what. In particular, Winston called attention to the power of the District Attorney to change the money bail system. Learn more here.
The Pretrial Justice Institute has released a report, “Where Pretrial Improvements are Happening,” about progress being made in improving pretrial practices. In an interview, Cherise Fanno Burdeen, the CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute, talked about these issues within North Carolina. Burdeen pointed out the cash-bail system, the for-profit bail bond industry, and pre-trail services that vary by county and are generally underfunded. However, the report also identifies movement within the state toward reform. For example, judges have been using their power for reform within existing statutes. Ultimately, the report calls for a pretrial risk assessment tool to replace cash-bail. Burdeen noted that real reform will come from state law changes and changes from higher courts. Learn more here.
The Asheville City Council has voted to make three changes to how police can search drivers or pedestrians. The most significant requires that police receive written permission before they search someone, unless they have “probable cause” to believe a crime has been committed. Additionally, the grounds for valid searches were restricted, and regulatory stops like traffic stops were de-emphasized.
While advocates hope that these changes will help curb stops on innocent drivers, law enforcement advocates caution that it could limit effectiveness of police in the midst of a drug epidemic. Advocates in favor of the changes also have pointed to data that clearly shows a racial disparity in traffic stops in Asheville. The changes come in the wake of a Black pedestrian being beaten by a police officer in Asheville, an event that has caused friction locally and garnered national attention. Learn more here.
In her new book, “Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness,” journalist Alisa Roth explores the incarceration of mentally ill individuals in the United States. She exposes a world in which correctional officers are substituted for mental health professionals without adequate training, and are left to manage a widespread mental health crisis in prisons and jails. Roth estimates that as many as half of all inmates suffer from a psychiatric condition. While some correctional institutions refused her requests to enter their facilities to investigate, others allowed her to see firsthand what was happening in their facilities. As a result, Roth is able to share some especially poignant stories about the inadequacy of psychiatric treatment in correctional institutions. Learn more here.