Commissioners approve program reducing penalties against first-time marijuana offenders

Commissioners approve program...

EL PASO, Texas - The El Paso County Commissioners Court approved a program Monday that would reduce penalties for some first-time marijuana offenders. 

District Attorney Jaime Esparza discussed the implementation of the First Chance Program, which will work in cooperation with the Criminal Justice Coordination Department, El Paso Police Department and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office. 

Esparza said the program would allow people who are solely caught with marijuana, and have no prior criminal record, to carry out eight hours of community service and pay a fine instead of getting arrested and facing criminal charges. 

"We're giving those people an opportunity to have another chance, said Esparza."We're still holding them accountable. I don't believe it affects our community's safety." 

El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles said the First Chance program is a chance for participants to think about their future. 

"This program will provide an educational opportunity to first time offenders with the intent to prevent their future use of illegal drugs," said Wiles. "It will eliminate minor drug convictions that could have long lasting negative effects on their ability to pursue certain types of employment and higher education opportunities."  

In 2016, Esparza said his office dealt with over 2,600 marijuana-related court cases, over 700 of which where first-time offenders with no legal record. 

Of the more than 700 cases, the majority of people caught are under 25, and around 76 percent are male. 

The program must be agreed to during the initial interaction with a law enforcement officials after they review the criminal record of the person in question. 

Those who agree have five business days to report to the CJC, 60 days to complete the program and must pay a $100 fine. 

Esparza emphasized that if law enforcement officers find marijuana on someone during an unrelated call, they are not eligible for the program. 

Upon success of the 90-day program trial, Esparza said cases of those who face pending marijuana-related charges and meet program requirements will be reviewed. 

In Texas, having less than 2 oz. of marijuana is a class B misdemeanor punishable by 180 days in jail or a $2,000 fine.