For one year now, Harris County has been running a successful program designed
to keep low-level drug offenders out of jail. According to the current
D.A., 90 percent of participants - about 2,000 people - have successfully
completed the program. Recently a report by the Baker Institute for Public
Policy at Rice University recommended the program be expanded.
The current program applies to those arrested on first-offense, Class B
misdemeanor charges of marijuana
possession. The program allows these defendants to avoid jail and a criminal conviction
by performing community service. The report says that expanding the program
to include repeat marijuana and low-level theft charges would save Harris
County taxpayers about $3.5 million annually. If the program were also
expanded to cover possession of small amounts of cocaine and other illegal
drugs, taxpayers could save about $80 million every year.
Of course, drug diversion programs do more than just benefit taxpayers.
They also benefit those charged with drug possession. A conviction for
a low-level drug offense can devastate a person. A criminal record of
any kind makes finding employment much harder, and for students it can
mean becoming ineligible for federal financial aid. Spending time in jail
awaiting trial can also have severe consequences, including lost jobs,
scholarships and apartments.
Anyone charged with a
drug crime, including possession, distribution or trafficking needs an aggressive
defense. Fighting the charges can result in the charges being reduced
or dismissed altogether. And a defendant who can point out weaknesses
in the prosecution's case may be able to negotiate a plea agreement
that would include a drug diversion program instead of jail time and a
Source: Houstonpress.com, "Report: Harris County could save millions by not
jailing drug offenders," Meagan Flynn, Sept. 29, 2015