The Houston chapter of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) attended a press conference with Kim Ogg, Democratic Candidate for Harris County District Attorney. She announced a program outlining how the DA’s office will handle the enforcement and prosecution of misdemeanor marijuana possession cases if elected.
The program, G.R.A.C.E (Government Resource Allocation/Criminal Exemption), will utilize the “Cite and Release” law that was passed in Texas in 2007. Offenders will not be taken into custody and jailed for misdemeanor marijuana possession (less than 4 ounces) in Harris County. Instead, the offender will be cited and released. They must then appear in a Harris County Criminal Court at a specific date and time to answer to the charge. Once the offender appears in court, the Harris County DA’s office will offer them the plea bargain option to participate in the G.R.A.C.E. program instead of the standard probation and jail options used here for the past 40 years.
If the offender chooses to take this deal and participate in the G.R.A.C.E. program, they will be referred into an expanded “Clean & Green” program that is currently operating as a community service option through the Harris County Community Corrections and Supervision Department, in cooperation with the sponsoring nonprofit organization, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership.
The participants will be required to work for two days cleaning up trash from our bayous and waterways. The two-day work program must be completed within two weeks following the court appearance. Once completed, the class A or class B misdemeanor case will be dismissed by the District Attorney’s office without requiring the offender to reappear in court. The offender will then be able to have the citation expunged from their record under Texas’ current expungement laws.
Houston NORML has been pushing for the implementation of “Cite and Release” since the law was passed in 2007. The Harris County DA’s office has completely ignored this law, arresting and jailing approximately 100,000 people for misdemeanor possession of marijuana over the past 7 years. Travis and Hays counties have already implemented cite and release for eligible offenders and have seen positive results.
The proposed G.R.A.C.E. program also allows the alleged offender, if they choose to participate in the program, to serve 2 days of community service and have their case dismissed. This includes anyone accused of a Class A or Class B misdemeanor marijuana possession, regardless of whether or not they are a repeat offender.
The current method of enforcing marijuana prohibition in Harris County causes a number of problems for our communities. A law enforcement officer making an arrest can expect to be tied up for at least 3 hours, keeping them from being on patrol, responding to calls, and dealing with serious matters. Those accused of misdemeanor marijuana possession are arrested, taken to jail, booked, and have to bond out. This presents tremendous problems for minorities, lower income, and young people. Many of these people will spend several days in jail because they don’t have the resources to bond out in a timely manner, causing them to lose their jobs. Some people will plead guilty simply because they don’t know any better. This will result in having a criminal conviction on their record that can never be expunged. It’s a life sentence.
Most people will get “deferred adjudication” which is a similar to probation. They will need to meet several requirements, including: monthly reporting to probation officer, submitting to a monthly urine analysis, community service, court costs, fines, restitution, and sometimes a drug/alcohol treatment program. It can take a year or longer to complete all of this and cost thousands of dollars.
Once these requirements are met, there is no conviction because it was “deferred.” These cannot be expunged completely, however, the offender can then file for a “non-disclosure” which hides it from their private record but not their public record. This can be a huge problem for anyone applying for a job in the public sector because their potential employer will see the marijuana possession charge and a “deferred adjudication” on their record.
Churning marijuana consumers through the criminal justice system is ineffective, costly to taxpayers, and extremely detrimental to those accused. Thousands of people are having their lives ruined simply because they were accused of possessing a small amount of marijuana.
Houston NORML firmly believes that responsible adults should be able to use the cannabis plant without being criminalized by their government. We advocate reforming the laws to regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol, allow for patients to have safe and legal access to marijuana for medical use, and decriminalization which would make marijuana possession a civil offense punishable by a fine instead of a criminal offense.
The District Attorney cannot change the laws; however, they can use their discretion when enforcing the law and prioritizing how different types of crimes are prosecuted. Given the circumstances of what the current laws are and what the role of the DA is, this program is the best we can possibly hope for right now. This was a brave proposal because it’s the most favorable position a candidate for DA has taken on this issue in all of Harris County’s history.
Perhaps the greatest aspect of the G.R.A.C.E. program is that it will be applied equally to anyone accused of misdemeanor marijuana possession. People will no longer be going to jail for these offenses and they won’t end up with a criminal record. They won’t be forced to report to a probation officer or have their urine analyzed by the government. They won’t have to reappear in court or pay a fine. This can greatly reduce the racial discrimination that exists when it comes to enforcing marijuana laws in Harris County.
Those accused of possessing small amounts of marijuana will be cited, released, appear in court once, spend two days cleaning up our bayous and waterways, have their case dismissed, and then are able to have the citation expunged from their record. This plan is simple, cheap, and this approach can definitely be considered “smart on crime” because it allows our law enforcement community to make better use of their resources.