Prosecutors in the most populated areas of Texas have in recent years dismissed a significantly larger number of marijuana offenses involving smaller amounts of the drug, according to a newspaper analysis.
In the five most populous counties - Bexar, Dallas, Harris, Tarrant and Travis - the rate of dismissals has risen since 2011, according to the review by the Austin American-Statesman.
Data kept by the Texas Office of Court Administration shows dismissals are increasing fastest in North Texas. Just 9 percent of cases were dismissed in Tarrant County five years ago, but last year about a quarter of them were dropped. In Dallas County, the percentage of dismissals rose from 18 percent to 41 percent over the same period.
Statistics show there appears to be a similar trend occurring statewide.
But that trend doesn’t necessarily reflect an easing of enforcement measures; the number of new misdemeanor marijuana cases filed statewide has stayed largely the same.
Authorities in Travis County say they’ve decided to prioritize more serious crimes instead of using resources to prosecute lower-level cases of marijuana possession.
“Jurors would look at us like we are crazy,” Travis County prosecutor Dan Hamre told the newspaper. “‘You are spending your time, our time and the court’s time on a small amount of personal marijuana?’ "
Officials in various parts of the state say a reason for the rising number of dismissals are programs similar to one in Harris County where cases are resolved without prosecution if defendants complete anti-drug classes.
“Nobody goes through three years of law school and becomes prosecutors so they can rap the knuckles of someone for smoking a joint,” said Shannon Edmonds, who’s in charge of governmental relations at the Texas District and County Attorney’s Association. “It’s not what draws them to the profession or gets them excited about doing justice.”
The change in approach appears to have drawn few critics. Lawmakers agree that authorities must decide how to manage caseloads.
“Whatever kind of case we are talking about, we expect law enforcement and prosecutors to use discretion and put the resources in the best place,” Republican state Rep. Bryan Hughes said.