Today, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson announced that all law enforcement agencies in Harris County will be required to offer her First Chance Intervention Program, a leniency program for first-time, low-level marijuana offenders, by January 1, 2016.
The program's goal, since its inception in October 2014, has been to keep these first timers from picking up charges and going to jail in exchange for community service—that way offenders could avoid the consequences of the charge, like losing a job or scholarship.
At a press conference Thursday, Anderson also said any cop who refuses to give the program to an eligible offender, a problem first highlighted by the Houston Press last month, will be required to state his or her reasons in writing. The DA's office, Anderson says, will ultimately look at those forms and will veto the officer's decision if that office feels an offender was wrongly denied the program.
The changes come amid questions about how the program could be accomplishing its main goal if, in the vast majority of cases—79 percent of them—eligible first-time offenders were still picking up charges and spending time in jail before they were offered the program in court. That amounts to 1,728 people.
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In large part, that may be because up until September, only the Houston Police Department and the Harris County Sheriff's Office had agreed to offer the program to offenders before they were charged and jailed (eleven agencies are now participating, according to the DA's office). Still, HPD and HSCO denied the program to some 40 percent of small-time pot eligible offenders they arrested, according to stats released by the DA's office earlier this year. "That is not the way I wanted this program to work," Anderson said.
Some offenders, the Houston Press found, were not even being offered the program by the DA's office, despite having perfectly clean criminal records.
Officer discretion appears to be at the heart of the problem. As the policy is currently written, officers aren't required to offer eligible offenders the leniency program upfront. Under an “exception” clause, officers can charge and jail pot offenders if they want to, leaving the DA's office to offer the program after offenders may have already experienced the potentially life-altering effects of a small-time drug charge—something the policy is supposedly aimed at preventing. The policy allows officers to deny eligible offenders so long as they obtain a supervisor's approval. The policy doesn't lay out when officers should use such discretion. Such reasons might not be documented at all. In many cases, it appears, officers may not even be filling out the required forms.
The Press filed a records request to see those forms for all 1,728 offenders denied the program by officers; we only received 13. Within that small pool, eligible first-time offenders who faced the consequences of possessing less than two ounces of pot ranged from a Houston Independent School District employee to an unemployed, out-of-school 19-year-old (who spent four days in jail and paid $300 in fines and $297 in court costs). One six-year military vet who had recently moved to Cypress from California to attend the University of Houston was forced to drop out of school and lost her GI Bill benefits after she was arrested and denied the program.