First time marijuana offenders may now avoid jail in Houston
An announcement today revealed a plan by the Harris County district attorney to change how marijuana possession charges for small amounts are handled.
Houston-based Devon Anderson stated today at a press conference that beginning Monday, non-violent first offenders carrying less than 2 ounces of marijuana will be able to escape prosecution by performing eight hours of community service or going through a drug awareness class.
“We are targeting the people we believe are self-correcting and will be ‘scared straight’ by being handcuffed and transported,” Anderson said. “Our goal is to keep these individuals from entering the revolving door of the criminal justice system.”
Anderson, who is the Republican incumbent, is facing Democratic challenger Kim Ogg in the November general election.
“This is not a new plan,” Ogg said. “It’s a ‘me too’ program by a candidate who has shifted her position with the winds of political change.”
Ogg had previously announced a similar program in July which went a little further than Devon’s.
Ogg outlined her new G.R.A.C.E. program, which would put those caught with less than four ounces of cannabis through two days of community service rather than in jail. After completion, the charge would be erased from their record. Repeat offenders would be eligible for this program as well.
She would also make use of Texas’ Cite and Release Law, which was passed back in 2007. That law, which few counties take advantage of, gives the arresting officer the discretion of writing a court summons to people who are caught with small amounts of marijuana instead of taking them to jail.
“This gives people an opportunity to repay their community for what is a small amount of drugs and then clean-up their record,” Ogg stated in July, adding “our tagline is ‘No jail, no bail, no permanent record, if you earn it.'” She also claims that it will save the county $10 million and divert about 12,000 people annually.
Anderson, who was appointed by Rick Perry in 2013, made a statement in mid August announcing her new plan, which would only divert about 2,000 people.
Standing next to Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland at the press conference, Anderson said the program may later be expanded to include other non-violent drug offenses. Houston’s two largest law enforcement agencies are the first to participate in the program.
Beginning next week, non-violent first offenders caught with less than 2 ounces of marijuana, the threshold for a Class B misdemeanor, will still get a ride to a police station where they’ll be fingerprinted to confirm their identity and lack of a criminal record.
If they qualify, they will be released and allowed three days to make an appointment with the county agency tasked with monitoring suspects out on bail.
If suspects do not successfully complete the program’s requirements, class B misdemeanor charges will be filed and an arrest warrant will be issued, Anderson said. If convicted, suspects face a maximum of six months in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Garcia and McClelland said the program would also get officers back to patrol faster.
After fingerprinting suspects, confiscating the potential evidence and creating an offense report, police officers will be able to go back to patrol. Filing formal charges, McClelland said, can take hours longer.
“On many occasions, when my officers spend three or four hours filing these charges, sometimes the offender can post bond almost before the officer returns to patrol duties,” HPD’s chief said.
Ogg disagreed with the analysis, saying Anderson’s plan still requires arresting officers to spend at least three hours processing each case.
“We need every police officer on the beat patrolling neighborhoods, protecting our families and our homes,” Ogg said. “(Anderson’s) plan totally fails to increase public safety.”
A group called Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) has been supportive of both candidates’ plans. They released a statement today, saying “RAMP is encouraged to see that alternatives to a lifelong criminal record are being implemented for small amounts of marijuana possession,” says John Baucum, Political Director for RAMP. “Law enforcement resources should be prioritized to combat violent crime. Our goal would be a change in state law to eliminate the arrest process entirely, but we welcome this change in Harris County. It is one step forward towards sensible marijuana policy reform.”
Another marijuana advocacy group in the area, Houston NORML, has also been vocally supportive of the candidates’ plans.