by TERRI LANGFORD
AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers may be reluctant to ease up on punishing small-time pot smokers, but local prosecutors across the state are increasingly looking for ways to keep two-bit toking cases from clogging court dockets and wasting resources.
This past session, seven bills that would have reduced criminal penalties for minor marijuana possession went up in smoke. But some county prosecutors are already choosing to pass on even filing charges when it comes to small pot possession cases, or looking for ways to divert recreational users to probation or community service programs.
Some have been doing so for years.
“The only people who do jail time for marijuana are the people who want to do jail time for marijuana,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.
A little over two years ago, for instance, Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz made the call that any marijuana case involving less than one-third of an ounce would never see the inside of a prosecutor’s office.
“I’m not condoning it,” Saenz said of marijuana use. But prosecuting someone over such a small amount of dope just doesn’t make any sense, he said, considering how many police officers and court personnel must work to get that case to trial. All of that effort, for what is now a Class B misdemeanor.
“If I’ve got a hundred bucks to spend, I don’t want to spend $10 for having a joint,” Saenz said. “It’s not good business.”
The result is much-needed relief for court personnel. According to the Office of Court Administration, there’s been a 57 percent drop in misdemeanor marijuana court filings for Cameron County.
Edmonds said there’s no data on exactly how many prosecutors statewide are taking a similar approach.
But many district attorneys try to weed out these minor, nonviolent offenses to keep their court dockets moving by diverting first-time offenders to probation, reducing court costs. If defendants comply with the local jurisdiction’s requirements – which can include holding down a job, a hefty community service component and regular check-ins with a probation office — then the charges are usually dismissed.
“There’s almost no value to the state [prosecutors] or the defense to try a Class B marijuana case,” Edmonds said.
Last October in Houston, the Harris County district’s attorney office rolled out its First Chance Intervention Program in an attempt to break the logjam of roughly 10,000 misdemeanor marijuana filings that hit the historically jammed dockets of Harris County’s misdemeanor courts, which have the feel of a very crowded airport.
“It’s a mess, period,” said Jeff McShan, spokesman for the Harris County DA’s office. “And marijuana was a big problem with that.”
First-time marijuana offenders who opt for First Chance can avoid being charged if they successfully complete eight hours of community service or an eight-hour class, along with regular check-ins with a probation officer.
By April 30, 1,355 first time marijuana offenders took Harris County up on the offer, and so far 767 people have completed the program. Another 415 are still in it, and 128 did not finish.
Already, the impact is being felt on Harris County’s docket.
For the first six months of this current fiscal year, there has been a 20 percent drop in Class B marijuana cases filed in Harris County, compared with the same period for 2014.
Saenz, the Cameron County DA, said he had hoped formally reducing penalties for small-time marijuana use would be one thing the Legislature accomplished this year. “It was one of the few things I agreed with,” he said.
TERRI LANGFORD reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.
COVER: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION by TODD WISEMAN/THE TEXAS TRIBUNE