'Second Chances:' How TX Could Save Money On Misdemeanor Drug Cases

Houston’s Harris County is diverting some people arrested for marijuana possession from the criminal justice system, showing that the ripple effects of drug law reform over the past few years are being felt even in conservative states, according to a study published by Rice University's James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. The study, entitled “Second Chances: the Economic and Social Benefits of Expanding Drug Diversion Programs in Harris County,” looks at how the First Chance Intervention Program (FCIP)—which diverts from the criminal justice system first-time offenders arrested for possession of less than two ounces of marijuana—could help the county save a significant amount of money, the study states. Booking fees for misdemeanor marijuana cases total nearly $2.6 million per year. “The consequences of a drug arrest extend far beyond a criminal record. The briefest stint of incarceration increases the risk that a person will lose current employment and makes it more difficult to find work upon release,” write authors Katherine Neill and Jay Jenkins, describing the reasons for a growing consensus on the need for drug reform.

PREA at a Crossroads

In an apparent reversal of position, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said earlier this year that his state would comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA)—but his assurance came with a catch, which advocates say could erode the federal government's “zero tolerance” policy on sexual assaults in correctional facilities. Abbott wrote in an annual PREA compliance report, filed May 15 to the Attorney General, that Texas would implement PREA standards “wherever feasible.” His predecessor, Gov. Rick Perry had famously rejected the PREA standards, calling them a “burden” and “ill conceived.” The standards include more than 275 regulations aimed at increasing prisoner safety, such as adding security cameras, hotlines for inmates to report assaults, and training programs for staff. Despite the change in Texas' position, Attorney General Loretta Lynch rejected Abbott's approach.