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Harris County, Texas to Forgive First-Time Offenders

A big policy change in Texas is opening up the way the state sees cannabis.

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Beginning January 1, 2016, all police officers across Harris County in Texas will offer first-time offenders a diversion program and release the suspect. The 60 or 90 day “1st Chance Intervention Program” only applies to offenders caught with less than 2 ounces of marijuana.

As part of the drug diversion program, low-level offenders issued citations will be offered to attend class time and community service. Once they complete the program, defendants will leave without a criminal record or jail time.

Harris County District Attorney, Devon Anderson, began the pilot program last year in the middle of a heated election against Democratic challenger Kim Ogg. Ogg ran a similar campaign that would have applied to repeat offenders as well.

Since that time, the majority of police officers who arrested first-time offenders never offered them the program upon arrest. Suspects would be taken to the station, booked in a jail cell and later appear in front of a judge. At this point in time, they could agree to participate in the program, but they left with a mark on their record.

According to Anderson, the program “frees up space in jails. It minimizes the administrative burden that officers face when filing charges. It reduces the cost for prosecution and court proceeding. And of course, it gives the offender and opportunity to have a completely clean record.”

She continues by stating that “when we don’t offer [the program] after the offender is charged, we lose a lot of the best benefits of the program.” In the past year 2,270 people enrolled and of those, 78% were arrested first.

In terms of recidivism rates, of the more than 1,500 who completed the program since 2014, only 6 percent have been arrested again. The program keeps a database of all the participants to prevent them from claiming first-offender status if they have already participated.

Currently, two ounces or less of marijuana earns you a misdemeanor in Texas along with 180 days in jail, a $2,000 fine, and a criminal record. Beginning January 1, 2016, the program would apply to all county law enforcement agencies, not just Houston and Harris County.

Anderson has stated that she is open to the idea of expanding the program beyond first-time offenders if it will lower recidivism rates. A recent Rice University study found that the expansion of the drug diversion program could save taxpayers more than $3.5 million a year.

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