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County approves program for first-time marijuana offenders

While the recreational use of marijuana remains illegal in Texas, a number of municipalities and counties in the Lone Star State have introduced measures that significantly reduce the penalties faced by those found to be in possession of small quantities of the drug. El Paso County's First Chance Program, which was unanimously approved by county commissioners on Oct. 30, is the latest such initiative, and it allows first-time offenders to avoid jail time and the consequences of having a criminal record.

Under the First Chance Program, those found with less than 4 ounces of marijuana in their possession will pay a $100 fine and perform eight hours of community service providing they have no prior history of drug arrests. They will not spend time behind bars and the incident will not be placed on their records. While a county employee will be tasked with overseeing the program at a cost to taxpayers of between $60,000 and $70,000 per year, supporters of the measure say that taking a softer stance on misdemeanor marijuana charges will benefit the public by allowing law enforcement to concentrate on more serious issues.

El Paso County prosecutors say that about 700 of the 2,700 or so marijuana possession cases they deal with each year involve individuals who have never been in trouble with the law before. They point out that most of these individuals are arrested for possessing a quarter-ounce of the drug or less and are usually 25 years of age or younger.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys may support efforts to reduce the penalties for minor drug offenses, and they could mention efforts like the First Chance Program during plea negotiations when their clients are facing harsh treatment for possessing small quantities of illegal drugs. Prosecutors work under tremendous pressure, and they may be willing to show leniency when offenders have no history of criminal behavior and pose little threat to the community.

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