Q&A: Harris County program lets low-level offenders clean records while cleaning bayous

HOUSTON – Thursday morning, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced a program that will allow offenders charged with low-level, nonviolent offences to avoid prosecution and a conviction on their record.

How does it work?  “They will go to jail. They will come to court. In court, they will be represented by a lawyer and they will meet with a prosecutor.  Our prosecutors have discretion to look at the evidence in the case, to look at the offender’s history,” said Ogg.  “Those offenders will report within days to this site, to these supervisors. They’ll do a day or two days of work. They’ll go back to court, show their proof of work and we’ll dismiss their case.”

VIDEO: District attorney discusses program

Who will pay for the program? The district attorney said each offender will pay $240 for the program, with exceptions for those who cannot afford it.

How many offenders will be included in the program?  Ogg said there will be 160 slots allowed per month.

Who will be included in the program?  Ogg said two of her prosecutors would make that decision. She said violent offenders will not be included in the program. “There’s criminal mischief. There’s trespass. There’s possession of certain types of controlled substances,” she said, adding that no one facing charges of domestic violence, assault or a weapons charge will be eligible.  

What do supporters say about the program?  Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said, “This isn’t a jail issue.  This is a criminal justice issue.  And it takes innovative thinking to find innovative ways to deal with nonviolent offenders.  We simply can’t incarcerate away these issues.”

What are the concerns of other law enforcement agency officials?  “Someone who is a victim can say, 'I understand you want to give them a second chance but they need to keep their nose clean for a few years before this comes off of their record',” said Joe Gamaldi, the president of the Houston Police Officers Union. “We certainly understand you may want to give people second chances of misdemeanors, but there needs to be a long time period afterward that this person needs to keep their nose clean.  It’s not acceptable to say, 'You do a six-hour class and you’re off the hook for this misdemeanor. There are victims involved with these crimes, even nonviolent crimes, and they deserve justice too.”