DA: New program to forgive 1st-time offenders caught with small amount of pot

HOUSTON – Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson says a new program will offer forgiveness for first time offenders caught with a small amount of marijuana.  The news was announced at a press conference Thursday afternoon.

The First Chance Intervention Program is a pretrial diversion program designed to give persons arrested for possession of two ounces or less of marijuana an opportunity to avoid the consequences of being charged with and jailed for low-level, non-violent criminal offense.

A criminal conviction can have an adverse effect on a person's life, often making it difficult to obtain employment, housing or even a car.

To date, the program has been successful.  Over 1500 people have completed the program and more than 90 percent have not re-offended, the DA says.

While the numbers show great progress, Anderson says she recognizes that not all eligible offenders to were being offered the program when they were initially detained.  Most were being offered an opportunity to participate in the program at their first appearance in court after being jailed and formally charged.

"First Chance was designed to be offered at the time of the arrest," Anderson said.  "Early diversion frees up space in our jails, minimizes administrative burdens on officers and reduces costs for prosecution and court proceedings.  It also gives the offender an opportunity to preserve a clean record.  When we don't offer it until after the defendant has been formally charged, however, we lose many of the best benefits of the program."

For that reason, beginning January 2016, the District Attorney's Office will require all county law enforcement agencies to offer the program to people who qualify at the time of the arrest.  Formal charges against qualifying marijuana offenders will not be filed in Harris County unless the arresting officer can show special circumstances that justify an exception, which will be rare.