- Associated Press - Thursday, November 5, 2015

HOUSTON (AP) - The district attorney in Texas’ most populous county on Thursday touted the success of a program that gives nonviolent first-time offenders caught with a small amount of marijuana the chance to avoid a conviction.

Under Harris County’s “First Chance Intervention Program,” first-time offenders with no prior criminal history who possess up to two ounces of marijuana can avoid being charged if they successfully complete a 60 or 90 day program.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said Thursday she was “amazed” by the program’s recidivism rates and said it has also freed up jail space and law enforcement resources.

Of the more than 1,500 people who have completed the program, which began in October 2014, only about 6 percent have been arrested again. In comparison, people in Texas who have been charged with possessing two ounces or less of marijuana and received probation have a 19 percent recidivism rate, Anderson said.

“We arrest a lot of people for marijuana,” Anderson said. “And what we were finding was a lot of the young people especially just take a conviction to get out of jail. And if you have a conviction, you have trouble getting a house or getting a job. It creates all kinds of problems that then would drive that individual back into crime. We are trying to break that cycle.”

Anderson said the program is different than similar ones around the state that cite violators but don’t arrest them because it avoids any charges being filed unless someone doesn’t successfully complete the program.

A 2007 state law allows Texas municipalities to not arrest individuals for Class B misdemeanors, such as possession of a small amount of marijuana, but instead issue a citation.

Anderson said the program is currently only being offered by Houston police and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Starting Jan. 1, it will be mandatory for all county law enforcement agencies.

“This is the way to do it,” she said.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70

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