Harris County is the most populous county in Texas, and the third most populous county in the entire United States. Beginning on January 1st – three weeks from tomorrow – those in the county caught possessing up to two ounces of cannabis for the first time will no longer be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor that could land them in prison for up to 6 months; instead, they’ll be given a citation and mandated to attend a diversion program (which is still annoying, but clearly much better than prison).
The new policy – called the First Chance Intervention Program – is being put in place by Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, who is moving forth with the change despite widespread criticism from his colleagues in law enforcement.
“If [a diversion program is] offered at the pre-arrest stage, it frees up space in jail,” says Anderson. “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 – which existed before this new policy change buy was widely underutilized – did not re-offend, a much higher rate than found in those who didn’t attend the program.
Anderson says that although the policy only applies for first time offenders, that may change in the near future.
“And after I saw these [stats], 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.”
Harris County includes Texas’ most populous city, Houston. Overall, Harris County has a population of over 4 million, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau report.