Evaluating reduced penalties for possession of marijuana

Across the country, there has been a wave of reforms targeting marijuana possession. The impact on criminal justice is currently unknown; the impacts of marijuana decriminalization are only beginning to be studied by independent researchers. Do these reforms make people safer?

Harris County’s (Houston, TX) District Attorney’s office has recently implemented a major reform: the pre-charge diversion of all arrests for possession of marijuana under 4oz. The reform has the potential to produce large impacts on crime by eliminating criminal records for petty marijuana offenses.

We alongside the local prosecutors to evaluate the impacts of marijuana diversion on crime rates, incarceration rates, reoffense rates, and the county’s financial bottom line. Specifically, we seek to answer three research questions:
(1) What are the impacts of marijuana diversion on criminal activity?
(2) What is the cost-benefit analysis of the diversion effort?
(3) What can be learned from implementation? What works well? What can be improved? How?

Together, we are developing a body of evidence quantifying impacts on crime rates, incarceration rates, and re-offense rates.

Identifying effective prosecutorial policies

Our innovative criminal records database enables new, transformative research into the efficacy of criminal policy. We have used these tens of millions of criminal records to quantify lifetime patterns of reoffense; are there gateway crimes? This research has influenced the design of local diversion programs for controlled substances.

We have also used it to identify reforms that should be exported across the United States. For instance, we discovered that Houston’s unique pre-authorization intake system saves an average $1.8-2.9 million per 100,000 residents per year than traditional intake systems.

In most jurisdictions, a police officer arrests and books a defendant, and then files the criminal complaint before a judge. The judge sets bail, and if necessary, appoints defense counsel for the accused. Inadequate cases are later dropped — often weeks or months later — by overworked prosecutors. This happens only after extensive investigation and usually not before the accused spent several nights in detention.

Houston, TX, however, has corrected this inefficiency; prosecutors receive a phone call from the police officer at the moment of arrest. The officer explains the circumstances of the arrest, and the prosecutor evaluates whether it meets the required elements of the crime. If satisfied, the prosecutor grants authorization, and only then does the police officer file. This way, fully 40% of charges are declined at the moment of arrest — instead of after several nights (or even weeks) in detention.

Supporting successful jail programs

We support Harris County’s cutting-edge Reentry Program by tailoring our risk prediction tool to enable better targeting of criminogenic deficits that heighten the risk of reoffense.

In August 2013, Reentry Services were started at the local county jail. The 90-day, case management-based programs are designed to target vulnerable populations of incarcerated men and women. The program began with Project EVOL-VE (formerly We’ve Been There Done That), which assists victims of sex trafficking and prostitution develop skills and identify resources to provide the victims safety and empowerment. The program has since expanded to include three other subprograms: Mentoring Moms (pregnant and post-partum women), Stars & Stripes (veterans), and Freedom Project (people struggling with addiction).

The programs seem to work, because participants have reoffense rates much lower than the national average. We are helping them by evaluating their four subprograms to quantify impacts on reoffense rates, employment, disciplinary history, and mental health.

Using our tablet software, we directly measure decision making and identify specific criminogenic needs. Working closely with social workers and mental health professionals, we are developing carefully targeted individual treatment plans in the hopes of getting the programs to yield even lower reoffense rates.

Health and crime

We are using our Criminal Records Database to evaluate whether the Clean Air Act’s reduction in lead levels caused reduced criminal activity when the children became adults 20 years later.

It is well-established that childhood lead exposure leads to decreased brain volume and adverse behavioral effects. These effects appear to adulthood and may manifest as criminal behavior. Using EPA lead measurements and our CRD, do childhood air-lead measurements correlate with crime committed later as young adults?

Our preliminary work suggests there is a strong relationship between serious criminal activity as a young adult and air-lead exposure at birth. For our next step, we are working closely with geospatial researchers from Rice University’s Kinder Institute.