One of the biggest issues facing the District Attorney's Office and criminal justice in Harris County is finding the appropriate way to deal with a Defendant charged with possessing a crack pipe that field-tests positive for cocaine residue.
Under the Penal Code, possession of any amount of cocaine (even if it is just residue) is a felony. For those amounts less than a gram, they are State Jail Felonies, punishable by 6 months to two years in a State Jail Facility (NOTE: Most defendants hate State Jail more than TDC, because the time must be served day-for-day, with no early release). If a person charged with a crack pipe case has prior felony convictions, that punishment range can be enhanced to a maximum of up to 10 years or even 20 years (depending on the types of priors).
Twenty years for a crack pipe? Does that sound excessive? Well, yeah.
And do you think there are lots and lots of these cases pending in every court? Absolutely. They are most definitely "docket cloggers".
So, what's the right thing to do with these cases?
A few years ago, the legislature changed the guidelines that a first offender was a mandatory probation. Not a bad idea, but it created a lot of issues that probably weren't anticipated in advance. Face facts, some defendants aren't good candidates for probation, and quite frankly, they don't want to be on probation. More often than not, these Defendants get probation and violate it within a few months with a new crack pipe case.
However, the mandatory probation, at least provides the opportunity (and I do stress "opportunity") for a Defendant to get some help with a substance abuse problem.
Another possible punishment is to plead the cases out to a $500 fine on a Class C-Possession of Drug Paraphernalia. That would be a quick and easy way to dispose of the case. The downside, however, is that a Defendant doesn't get any opportunities to get help. They just get recycled immediately back onto the street.
The question arises of what is the right thing to do?
Ideally, resources should be spent on rehabiliating drug users and making them productive members of society. However, this isn't a popular choice amongst those charged. The prevailing attitude in most holdovers that I've observed is "whatever gets me the hell out of jail fastest is what sounds best to me."
Add to the mix the fact that in many lower-income neighborhoods, crack addicts are an epidemic that have ruined places to live. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that I've seen incidents where crack addicts have literally moved in to homes of elderly people (with the elderly people helpless to resist) just to turn the place into their personal dens for crack smoking.
So, what do you do?
A person spending twenty years in prison over a crack pipe is excessive, to say the least.
But people in every neighborhood have a right to be safe.
A person's life shouldn't be ruined over a simple crack pipe.
But there's no denying the carnage that crack use has caused in many neighborhoods.
What's the right answer?
Is there one?