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Travis County DA Calls Criminal Justice System A 'Very Poor Tool' To Address Drug Usage

Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore
Julia Reihs
Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore says she learned while running for office in 2016 the highest number of felony charges filed in the county each year had been for possession or delivery of less than one gram of a controlled substance.

Things have changed in the past year or so in how Travis County approaches some cases involving particular types and amounts of drugs. District Attorney Margaret Moore says the "criminal justice system is a very poor tool to use to address drug usage or substance abuse of any kind."

Moore announced last week that her office is dismissing 32 felony cases of possession or delivery of marijuana because of a new Texas law legalizing hemp. Hemp and marijuana both come from the cannabis plant, but hemp contains only trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive compound that gets people high. She and a few other district attorneys in Texas say crime labs cannot test concentration levels of THC to determine if the substance is illegal.

Moore earlier said a backlog of more serious cases led her to expand the definition of trace amounts of suspected drugs that are not prosecuted and to take a closer look at all possession cases below a gram. She says for about a year now, eligible cases below a gram have been transferred to a docket in a state jail impact court, freeing up space and resources for more serious cases.

Moore says she believes America's "war on drugs," which started in the late 1960s was, is a "massive failure." She says a more effective system would involve getting some drug cases "out of the criminal justice system, where we're not doing a good job, and into the public health arena ... in partnership with our law enforcement agencies."

Listen to KUT's interview with Moore to hear how she believes public safety can still be maintained while diverting some drug cases out of the criminal justice system.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

Travis County DA Margaret Moore: We are saving public resources. We're saving the lab resources. We're saving police resources. We're saving court resources. We're saving jail resources. And we can then redirect those resources to much more serious felonies, which I think is more in line with the priorities of this community.

To me, we're meeting important objectives here. There are some things that need to be put in place going forward, but with what we have now and the ability that I've got as a public administrator and a policymaker, I believe we've taken huge steps to get in line with what this community wants us to do.

KUT: What needs to be put in place going forward in your opinion?

Moore: We have inadequate treatment resources. If I were to be the empress for a day and say, "Here's what we need to put in place," I would like to see a way for the need to work with the police to have certain offenders taken directly to a center – a place where they could be dropped off by the police; the police file their report and take the drugs away; but then from that point it is handled by public health professionals who can assess that person's needs to address their drug usage.

I know that this community wants to do that, but we don't have the resources in place at this moment to get there. I'm advocating very strongly with the folks who can make that happen that we move in that direction with all deliberate speed.

KUT: Is this part of any sort of larger societal shift in "philosophically" how certain crimes involving possession of drugs are regarded?

Moore: There's a lot of discussion now based upon that history, recognizing that the criminal justice system is a very poor tool to use to address drug usage or substance abuse of any kind. The harm to the defendants and their families, as we've begun to see, outweighs by a good margin any kind of public safety threat that that usage entails.

But it's a hard shift to make because it's pretty easy to go to over to the Legislature and get some made against the law. And it's real hard to get it unmade as a crime. There is also a recognition that you're not going to change this behavior the first time you address it. So, there's a lot of discussion now about trying to implement programs that reduce harm rather than completely restore that person to sobriety.

I believe we've got to get most of this out of the criminal justice system– where we're not doing a good job – and into the public health arena. But we need to do that, in my opinion, in partnership with our law enforcement agencies. What I'm trying to do is work with my law enforcement folks and say, "Let us define our public safety objectives" and then weed out, in partnership, the ones that can be addressed adequately through a public health approach.

We have law enforcement agencies here in Travis County that are very open to that discussion. So, I think it will bear fruit, but we'll do it in a way that we can assure the public your safety interests are going to be addressed. We're going to still enforce the law, but we are also going to use what we know to divert out of this system the appropriate cases and defendants.

Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @jenstayton.
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