Before her struggles with drug addiction, Latoshia Suzette Clark was a licensed nursing assistant who had lived in Houston, Texas, for almost all of her life. In September of 2011, 36-year-old Clark was arrested for drug possession, assigned a bail amount she could not pay, and consequently tossed into the overcrowded Harris County Jail, where she languished for nearly a month without medical treatment for her AIDS. Six weeks after being admitted to the Harris County Jail, Clark died.
Clark was just one of the thousands of victims of a Harris County policy to enforce so-called “trace” arrests—felony arrests made on the basis of the possession of less than 1/100th of a gram of drugs: basically, the residue on a crack pipe or one crispy leaf dangling in a baggie.
A substantial number of jurisdictions in America have come to the conclusion that the so-called “war on drugs” is costly and ineffective. Many conservatives, liberals, and medical experts agree that addiction should be viewed as a public health issue rather than a criminal one. President Obama called the war on drugs “very unproductive” and has commuted over 500 sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
In Harris County, however, people of color like Clark are arrested and booked into the overcrowded Harris County Jail for the crime of possessing infinitesimal amounts of illegal drugs. Under Texas law, these stops and arrests are perfectly legal, but it looks like November 8’s election for the district attorney of Harris County may come down to this vestige of the drug war: whether to bring Harris County in line with the rest of the country, or whether to continue a policy that has little to do with public safety.
Devon Anderson, the sitting DA for Harris County, was appointed to her position in 2013 after her husband, Mike Anderson, unexpectedly died. She then won the 2014 special election against her current opponent, Kim Ogg, in part based on her promise to maintain her husband’s fealty to felony trace prosecutions and other tough on crime measures.
In fact, Mike Anderson brought back the trace prosecutions after his predecessor Pat Lykos (also a Republican) ended them. When Lykos decided to make possession of trace drugs a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine rather than jail, there were 50 percent fewer people arrested for felony drug possession in the county that year and the county saved money, no joke in a place where 70 percent of the budget goes to catching and punishing criminals. Contrary to some fears that reducing felony arrests would cause skyrocketing violence, crime in Harris County dropped. Lykos’s logic was that officers were better off solving violent crimes than spending two days working a trace conviction. It was also just more fair—trace amounts are so small that they are used up in testing, so there’s often no opportunity for the defendant to retest the substance in the case of faulty results.