Marijuana possession cases costing Harris County in resources, future of those caught

Data shows someone is arrested in Harris County for pot possession every 50 minutes. And the cases have far-reaching implications
May 7, 2014 1:23:36 PM PDT
Texas leaders are acknowledging that something may need to change in the way Texas prosecutes marijuana possession. A 2013 study from the ACLU suggests Texas spends more than $250 million every year enforcing marijuana possession laws. The easiest way to drop the cost for pot users is to stop using, but that's not likely.

Gov. Rick Perry mused out loud about marijuana decriminalization a few weeks ago, and on Thursday afternoon, Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland said it may be time to consider alternative enforcement and sentencing options.

Analysis of Harris County data shows someone is arrested in Harris County for pot possession every 50 minutes. There are nearly 11,000 cases every year. It is the second most frequent charge in Harris County Courts at Law, behind only DWI.

Twenty states across the country have legalized marijuana in some form, but Texas is headed in the opposite direction. Pot possession cases in Harris County courts have more than doubled since 1995.

We interviewed one 68-year-old grandfather caught with less than half a gram of pot in November. He was arrested and so far has been to court three times on this case, with more on the way before the case is over. As he was making his third court appearance, he told us, "They found a small roach."

Nearby, a 19-year-old was in court for the fifth time on his marijuana possession case. He pleaded guilty months ago and is still on probation.

"I got caught, you can't say not guilty," he said.

And it's those guilty pleas that are attracting some attention and may be the most significant cost of the laws. One of every six cases in Harris County misdemeanor courts are for pot possession; that's nearly 11,000 cases a year in Harris County. And 60 percent of defendants plead guilty. Most do it just days after their arrest, creating thousands of drug convicts every year.

Judge Sherman Ross in the Harris County Court at Law 10 tells he sees several cases on his docket every morning.

"They're not only not King Pins, they're social users," Ross said.

By the time a misdemeanor pot possession case is wrapped up, it's touched by a police officer, a jailer, at least two prosecutors, a judge, a clerk, a defense lawyer, and more often than not, a probation officer, plus days of missed work for the person charged.

The ACLU study suggests it costs more than $3,300 per case in Texas. Harris County does not break down costs by charge so county level statistics were unavailable.

That grandfather in court told us, "It's a waste of taxpayers' money. It's a joke and the joke's on us because we're paying for it."

But the total cost is not just in dollars but in real life consequences that Judge Ross fears the average 24-year-old defendant doesn't always think of.

"It is considered a drug offense and what the individual might consider an inconvenience -- a costly inconvenience -- could turn out to be quite a headache," Ross said.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson echoed the judge's opinion.

"When you have two people up for a job, and one has a conviction and the other doesn't, guess who gets the job. Convictions have a real consequence on someone's life," Anderson said.

But what can be done?

Attempts to change state law have gone nowhere for years, making Gov. Perry's recent consideration of decriminalization unlikely. Legalization is a (pun intended) pipe dream.

But there is a push to do something.

Anderson started talking with Sheriff Adrian Garcia about a "Cite and Release" program to give summons to court instead of arresting suspected pot users and booking them in jail.

In Austin's Travis County, statistics show Cite and Release is used about 30 percent of the time with mixed success. Many defendants simply don't show up in court, warns DA Anderson. And even with Cite and Release, it could still result in thousands of convictions.

DA Anderson says she wants to stop pushing pleas and start looking at treatment.

"As a mother, it bothers me to see a bunch of young people with convictions, and I don't think the problem is solved without education or counseling," Anderson said.

Anderson says she will soon push her prosecutors to treat and educate young users instead of getting them to accept fast guilty pleas.

Find Ted on Facebook at ABC13TedOberg or on Twitter at @tedoberg


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