Harris County is Texas' most populous county, and is the third most populous county in all of America. There are an estimated 4.337 (2013) million people in Harris County, Texas. To put that into perspective, there are less than 4 million people in the entire state of Oregon. Starting Friday, marijuana will be decriminalized for all first time offenders that are caught with up to two ounces of marijuana, per the directive of Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson.
The public policy mandate is an expansion of the 'First Chance Intervention Program' which was introduced by DA Anderson in 2014. Up until this point, the program has been up to the officer's discretion, which has resulted in a 22% referral rate to the program. Starting Friday, 100% of cases that fit the program's criteria will be referred to it. Per Houston Public Media:
"If it's offered at the pre-arrest stage, it frees up space in jail," Anderson said. "It minimizes the administrative burdens that officers face when they file charges; it reduces the cost for prosecution and court proceedings; and of course it gives the offender an opportunity to have a completely clean record."
Data provided by the district attorney's office show more than 90 percent of those who took advantage of the program did not re-offend - a much better recidivism rate than for those who were charged.
"And after I saw these, I said, hey, let's look at what the recidivism rate would be for a second offender or a third offender," Anderson said. "So we're going to look at that."
It's far from as good as legalization, but it's a start. Texas is not an easy place to achieve reform due to Texas' lack of an initiative system, but this is a big move that will hopefully help build momentum for more reform. Below are eligibility and program requirements, via the program's website:
A person is considered a first offender and eligible to participate in the program if he or she:
- Is detained or arrested* for possession of marijuana, 2 ounces or less
- Possesses sufficient identifying information
- Has no additional charges out of the instant detention/arrest (other than Class C tickets)
- Has no outstanding warrants or holds (including Class C charges)
- Has no criminal convictions as an adult (Class B offense or greater)
- Has never received probation or deferred adjudication (Class B offense or greater)
- Is not currently on bond, deferred adjudication or probation (Class B offense or greater)
- Has not participated in this program or another pretrial intervention program
*Under this pilot program, offenders arrested by an agency other than the Houston Police Department or the Harris County Sheriff's Office will be sent to jail and offered the First Chance Intervention Program in Court.
An offender must:
- Contact Pretrial Services within 3 business days of his/her arrest and schedule an intake appointment
- Appear at Pretrial Services for an intake interview and a short assessment
- Participate for 60 or 90 days*, during which time the offender must:
(1) Not break the law
(2) Pay a non-refundable $100 program fee (may be reduced or waived if indigent)
(3) Complete either 8 hours of community service or an 8-hour cognitive class*
*Program length (60 or 90 days) and program requirement (community service or cognitive class) are determined at the intake interview