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Can decriminalizing marijuana improve public safety in Houston?

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The city announced on Thursday that it would allow many offenders to bypass court appearances and jail time in an effort to divert resources to other issues. Though the approach has potential, it will likely face challenges.

Using his fingers to pick off any undesirable leaves from a cannabis plant, this Southern California grower is in his first year and is growing plants in his backyard under Prop. 215. Starting March 1, Houston, Texas, will decriminalize possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana, the Harris County DA's office announced on Thursday.
Matt Masin/The Orange County Register/AP/File
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Like law enforcement everywhere, Houston officials want safe neighborhoods for a reasonable price. Following decades of rising incarceration and diminishing public safety returns, America’s fourth most-populous city is embarking on a new approach to drug crime.

On Thursday, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced that Houston would decriminalize possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana, beginning March 1. The new county policy means offenders without warrants for other crimes will soon have a route to bypass court appearances and jail time. Under the Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program, they can opt instead to pay $150 and take a 4-hour drug education class. (The fee will be waived for those who cannot afford it.) Those who refuse to take the class will still face charges in court, and could spend up to one year in jail if convicted.

County policymakers say this approach will improve public safety by diverting law enforcement resources to more serious public safety issues, while improving outcomes for affected families and communities. As yet, however, this particular strategy is untested, and some law enforcement officials are concerned that drawing a line between drug possession and sale might actually be counterproductive.

“Overall, it’s a laudable impulse,” says Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. But “it’s not necessarily a simple issue.”

Nationwide, incarceration has become the punishment of choice over the past four decades. The number of inmates in state prisons increased sevenfold between 1970 and 2010, according to a 2012 report by the New York-based non-profit Vera Institute of Justice. That approach was once seen as the key to public safety, keeping offenders off the streets and out of neighborhoods. But public sentiment has begun to shift, particularly in relation to nonviolent drug offenders.

Ms. Ogg alluded to the costs of prosecution and incarceration while announcing the new policy on Thursday.

“We have spent in excess of $250 million [over the past 10 years while producing] no tangible evidence of public safety,” she said, according to the Houston Chronicle. “We have disqualified, unnecessarily, thousands of people from greater job, housing and educational opportunities by giving them a criminal record for what is, in effect, a minor law violation.”

In response, Houston found itself looking for an alternative approach. That’s not uncommon for big cities, which simply don’t have time to try people for possessing pot, says Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management.

In California and Arizona, for instance, all non-violent drug offenders are automatically diverted to treatment programs, explains Rosalie Pacula, a professor at Pardee RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica, Calif., and co-director of the Drug Policy Research Center. While the effect of such programs on recidivism is hard to measure carefully, she tells the Monitor, these drug treatment programs tend to provide a cost-effective improvement in participants’ education and employment outcomes. 

These programs are particularly cost-effective because the price of jail is so high: Incarcerating one inmate in a Houston jail for one day costs $52, according to a 2015 report by the Vera Institute, adding up to a total of $172.5 million per year for the county.

It’s hard to check that offenders are going to the programs, however, notes Professor Kleiman, which may indicate that Houston’s new approach would be ineffective. Still, evidence from other states paints an encouraging picture.

“Neither [California nor Arizona] aggressively confirmed that people were going to treatment ... yet the results suggested that it was effective,” Professor Pacula observes.

Since most studies have focused on drug treatment programs, it’s hard to know what the impact of Houston’s education-only approach will be, she adds. But she says that such a focus is “not really addressing the underlying issue” of drug possession, suggesting that Houston may need to tweak its program to reduce recidivism.

Some combination of drug education and treatment may be more effective in addressing those underlying issues, Scott Chipman, the Southern California chair of advocacy organization Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, tells the Monitor in an email.

“A program that educates and assists users and addicts and keeps them out of jail could be very helpful,” he writes, noting that many schools have dropped such education programs for financial reasons.

Even if people continue to use marijuana at the same rate, reducing incarceration could still provide a public safety benefit by freeing up police officers to work on other cases. The city has prosecuted 107,000 misdemeanor marijuana cases in the past ten years, at tremendous cost to officer time, Houston officials told the Chronicle.

“There’s real crime to chase, and they don’t have the cops to do it,” Kleiman explains.

But decriminalization leaves many in the law enforcement community ambivalent. Professor O’Donnell, who is also a veteran police officer and former prosecutor, says decriminalization can create further challenges by increasing demand for drugs.

“It’s a little bit of a fiction” that there’s a separation between possession and sale, he says, remarking, “If people weren’t buying, other people wouldn’t be selling.”

On top of that, criminal justice has become a business in some ways, O’Donnell observes, meaning that curbing the arrest rate could have implications for law enforcement officers’ jobs and livelihoods.

“This work [is] people’s bread and butter,” he says.

The federal government has inadvertently contributed to this by giving states and local governments money specifically for law enforcement, notes Kleiman. Communities concerned about drug activity may also feel more secure when offenders are incarcerated. 

Ultimately, what is needed is not just a change in policy, but a change in attitude, Rachel Harmon, a law professor at the University of Virginia, indicated in an interview this month.

“Communities need to participate in identifying their public safety and order goals and developing alternative mechanisms for achieving them,” she told UVA News, discussing her paper in the current issue of the Michigan Law Review. “This requires changing the expectations of victims and members of the community who presently demand arrests as a response to crime or disorder.”