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 criminal record.
Source: Houstonpress.com, "Report: Harris County could save millions by not jailing drug offenders," Meagan Flynn, Sept. 29, 2015