People caught with less than 2 ounces of marijuana in Travis County may qualify to take a $45 four-hour class and avoid all charges under a proposal unanimously adopted by the Travis County Commissioners Court. The class would be available only to people who are "cited and released" by law enforcement, not to those arrested and booked into jail.
"We had a practice that was marking people for life,” Commissioner Brigid Shea said before voting for the program Tuesday. She said it was particularly hard for people who couldn't afford to have their records expunged and were labeled criminals.
Travis County already offered some people charged with marijuana possession an eight-hour class to avoid jail time, but it still left them with a class A or B misdemeanor on their records.
“They still were charged. They still had it on their record," county attorney David Escamilla told commissioners. "It still could affect their opportunities to get a job, so they would have to come and spend the money and effort for expunction.”
Under Texas law, people can seek to have a charge removed, or expunged, from their criminal records if they meet certain criteria, but it can be expensive to pay legal fees and hire an attorney.
Escamilla explained in an email that the four-hour class will initially be available only to Class B misdemeanor cases (up to 2 ounces), and after "evaluating the pilot program, we hope to phase in at least certain types of Class A [possession of marijuana] cases," he said.
According to a document from county staff, the four-hour class includes subjects such as the effects of marijuana on the brain and body, symptoms of substance use disorders and how to "distinguish myths from facts about marijuana and marijuana use/abuse."
The eight-hour class will remain an option for people considered to be "high-risk" offenders.
About 2,000 people are arrested for marijuana possession in Travis County each year, and hundreds more are issued citations and released to appear in court. The arrests disproportionately involve African-Americans and Hispanics, according to Austin Police Department data.
Correction: This post has been updated to reflect a limit of 2 ounces for being "cited and released" by police. The county attorney says they may expand they plan to expand the program eventually to include Class A Misdemeanor marijuana possession (2-4 ounces), but for now, they are piloting the program only with Class B cases (up to 2 ounces).