Why Decriminalizing First-Time Marijuana Possession Cases is Good for Harris County

Earlier this month, Harris County District Attorney, Devon Anderson, announced the expansion of her First Chance Intervention Program (FCIP), which turned one-year old in October. This program was supposed to give first-time offenders an opportunity to avoid a criminal conviction by completing eight hours of community service or completing an eight-hour class. As with most programs where a bureaucrat is given “discretionary” authority to decide someone’s fate, it has not been implemented effectively.

“Instead of arresting first offenders caught with less than 2 ounces of marijuana, all police officers across Harris County will offer a diversion program and release the suspect.” – Devon Anderson According to the Houston Press, only twenty-one percent (21%) of eligible candidates have benefited from this innovative program. That means out of a group of ten first-time offenders, only 2 are able to avail themselves of the FCIP, even though all ten qualify. That should change beginning January 2016, when anyone caught with less than two ounces of marijuana will be issued a citation, similarly to how a traffic violation is treated. Two ounces is a generous amount of marijuana to be in possession. Depending on the quality, the street value can range anywhere from $200 to $300. But, is this new policy change good for Harris County?

  1. Harris County Tax Payers (Like You) Save Money – A criminal case costs tax payers a lot of money. That cost increases substantially if a defendant cannot afford to meet bail and must remain in jail until his or her day in court. This does not even take into account the potential cost of that defendant once he or she is convicted and must serve time in prison. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, a criminal case costs Texas tax-payers about $3,300; Texas spends more than $250 million every year enforcing marijuana possession laws. In Harris County, prior to the program, a defendant was arrested every fifty (50) minutes for marijuana possession. That resulted in close to 11,000 cases per year. Marijuana possession is the second most frequent criminal offense only after Driving While Under the Influence in Harris County. The math is easy: $3,300 x 11,000 = $36 Million Dollars.
  2. First-Time Offender’s Future is Not in Peril – Beginning in January, a first-time offender will no longer be treated like a criminal and their future employment prospects might not be compromised due to a possession of marijuana offense charge. On a job application, it is tough enough when you have to explain an arrest, let alone a conviction. A job applicant might never be able to explain how a mistake at the tender age of nineteen resulted in a conviction when a potential employer tosses the job application into the trash. Context is key. Often times, context is everything in a criminal case. Law enforcement officers would rather charge a suspect with an offense and allow it to be dismissed by the prosecutor than to fail to charge the suspect. Anderson adds, “When you have two people up for a job, and one has a conviction and the other doesn’t, guess who gets the job. Convictions have a real consequence on someone’s life.” Additionally, college students that depend on financial aid to pay for their tuition will not be throwing away their future education goals because of a poor decision. Any federal or state drug conviction, including possession of marijuana, can disqualify a student from receiving federal student aid grants and loans, if the offense was committed when the student was already receiving federal student aid.
  3. Just the Wake Up Call a First-Time Offender Needed – While Harris County specific statistics are not available regarding the effectiveness of FCIP; other similar programs boast recidivism rates that are less than 7 percent compared with 19 percent in jurisdictions across the state where low-level offenders are put on court-supervised probation. This does not create a revolving door where first-time offenders are caught in some type of criminal purgatory due to their possession of marijuana offense. Perhaps, for some, it becomes the deterrent he or she needed to avoid the criminal justice system in the future. Another way to look at it, a citation is an effective and pragmatic approach to address first-time offenders.

At the end of the day everyone wins! Harris County tax-payers save money. Money is reallocated to more pressing needs and matters. Our justice system can finally address the criminal cases that do matter. A non-discretionary policy eliminates the subjective tendencies of some law enforcement officers. And, most importantly, we are able to intervene and help out those first-time offenders that needed a dose of reality without exposing them to the dark-side of the criminal justice system. What are your thoughts? Should this offense be treated similarly to a speeding violation? Or, should Harris County wait for the Texas Legislature to address this issue? Either way, Harris County will be handling this type of offense differently beginning next year.

  • dawrongguey

    While this measure is objectively better than what we currently have, marijuana should be completely decriminalized, without any qualification. There’s absolutely no reason why its use or distribution should be penalized in the first place.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Until the Texas legislature addresses this issue, local governments will be restrained in their approach on this issue.