KHOU.COM – Program offers alternative punishment for marijuana charges (Texas)

HOUSTON — If you want to know what it looks like to get caught with marijuana in Houston, picture cuffs on your wrists and a ride in a squad car.

But for certain offenders, that drive now has an alternate ending—not a jail cell, but a classroom.

It’s called the First Chance Pilot Program.

People caught with up to two ounces of marijuana, who have never been in trouble before, won’t be charged with a crime in Harris County as long as they finish eight hours of community service or an eight-hour class.

“You look at the positive consequences and the negative consequences,” the teacher said, reading from a board in front of a class full of marijuana offenders. They’re mostly late teens, many still in high school. But the subject of the day was learning how not to repeat a dumb mistake.

“Folks are much better off if we teach them how to make good decisions,” said Dr. Brian Lovins, assistant director for the Harris County Community Supervision Corrections Department.

So the offenders learn how to turn away from risky behaviors to stay out of the justice system.

“It’s like that slap on the wrist that’s like, if you really want to change, you’ll do it and you’ll never face this problem again. But then if you stay the same way, then you’ll come right back,” said 17-year-old Abraham Arias, a program participant.

It’s a cycle Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson is trying to break.

“We need to recognize who we’re mad at and who we’re scared of, and the people we’re scared of, we’re locking them up for as long as we can,” said Anderson. “But what we need to start focusing on are the people who are making mistakes but can be salvaged.”

About 400 marijuana offenders are going through First Chance right now. Since it started in October, close to 400 more have finished, with less than 50 dropping out.

“[That is] pretty phenomenal in the criminal justice world,” said Anderson.

She’s hoping to expand the approach to stop putting criminal charges on other low-level misdemeanors, like trespassing and petty shoplifting.

But how much is born out of necessity of just having overcrowded jails?

“It’s a side benefit, but I think it’s not the main focus, it’s not mine. It’s the sheriff’s, I think, and I don’t blame him for that,” Anderson said. “But for me it’s about not creating an entire class of criminals for a first-time arrest.”

That’s a goal the First Chance class is thankful for, knowing that moment in handcuffs…

“I felt like my life was over,” said program participant Alex Hatton.

…Could have meant a conviction that any future landlord or boss could see…

“Nobody wants a stoner to work for them,” said Arias.

So they’re working on themselves.

“Stay focused on school for right now, so I can make it to college and finish college,” said Hatton.

Using this opportunity…

“I see it for what it is, it’s a second chance,” said program participant Chase Embrey.

…To make the right call.

Right now this only counts if you’re arrested by HPD or the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. But when the six-month pilot program ends in early April, it may expand to all law enforcement in the county, and to include those other low-level misdemeanor crimes.

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