People in Houston who are caught with small amounts of marijuana in Harrison County, Texas, will no longer face jail time for their non-violent offense. Harris Counties new policy, called “cite-and-release” was announced last month in Texas’ most popular county which includes Houston, the fourth-most populous city in the U.S., with about 4.5 million residents.
Effective March 1st, instead of jail time, the county will now offer a four-hour drug education course to anybody found with less than four ounces of marijuana. However, this does not apply to school zones and juveniles are not eligible for the course. Additionally, for most low-level offenders, this new policy will save them a trip to jail and a potential criminal record, as long as they finish the drug education course.
The drug education course will cost $150 but financial aid will be provided to those who are unable to pay. If one fails to attend the course, the county will pursue charges against them. Officials say this new policy will also save the county a lot of money. Nearly $26 million annually will be lifted from costs related to law enforcement, incarnation, and the court system.
Tom Berg, Harris County’s first assistant district attorney, told The Huffington Post, “Defendants don’t miss work, they don’t go to jail, they don’t have to make bonds, they don’t have to pay a lawyer, the courts are not congested with these cases and the jail is less crowded,” he continued, “When you have 10,000 cases on a 100,000-plus case docket that are simple marijuana possession cases, you look for smart ways to resolve those so that you can dedicate your resources to the really serious crimes.”
The new policy comes at a time when leaders of Harris County are bringing in an agenda to broaden criminal justice reform. While Harris County looks to overhaul ineffective tough-on-crime policies and become more lenient on marijuana, many of their neighbors in deep-red Texas have not.
Republican District Attorney Brett Ligon, is the DA for neighboring Montgomery County. Ligon believes the new policy would make Harris County “a sanctuary for dope smokers” and Republican Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has employed similar language in his criticism.
In the state of Texas, possession of two ounces or less is considered a misdemeanor and is punishable by up to 180 days in jail and or a $2,000 fine. Harris County is ethnically diverse and a moderate swing county. Yet, their marijuana laws have not always been lax.
In 2016, a report last year found that in the first six months police officers in Harris County had made more than 1,000 arrests involving people with less than two ounces of pot, 98 percent of those arrested were people in poorer communities.
Tarsha Jackson, Harris County director of the Texas Organizing Project, told the Huffington Post that she believes Harris Counties new marijuana policy shows how activists can promote criminal justice reform through local elections.
“We’ve had the same administration here for over 40 years, and crime has not decreased based on being tough on crime, it’s only increased,” said Jackson. “Now we’re bringing in a fresh set of minds that are looking at crime a different way ― not targeting low-level offenses or oppressed black and brown communities.”
Houston criminal lawyer and Gotham City Esquire contributor Chad Jordan has handled hundreds of cases in the Harris County area. When asked his opinion on the law, he had a different take. “It’s a step in the right direction…” he continues “However, I don’t think it goes far enough. We can look to California and Denver and see how they’ve implemented both recreational and medicinal marijuana and how successful it has been, especially economically.” Jordan stops short of completely praising the new direction as he states, “But, this whole thing makes me think of how many kids have a permanent criminal record just because they took a plea for a tiny bag of weed. We should’ve been doing this a long time ago.”