City prosecutors have been offering more people charged with marijuana possession a chance to avoid conviction through community service, and recently released data shows that defendants are taking the deal at a rate that has tripled in the course of a year.

Close to 4,500 went into the program, known as "diversion," in 2013 — up from about 1,400 the year before.

"This is something, frankly, we're very proud about," Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said.

The association that represents Maryland's 24 state's attorneys recently voted to oppose pushes in Annapolis to decriminalize or legalize marijuana, but the growing use of diversion programs show how city prosecutors are softening their approach.

Defendants accused of possessing a small amount of marijuana are offered a chance to perform a few hours of community service, and in return, their cases are put on an inactive docket. That legal maneuver means the charge can later be expunged.

Bernstein said last spring that he wanted to expand the program, which had largely been applied to first-time offenders, offering some defendants a chance at diversion for second and third offenses.

He said that despite the relatively minor penalties imposed in Maryland for possessing small amounts of marijuana — having less than 10 grams comes with a maximum 90-day jail term — a criminal conviction can cause problems for people as they seek jobs and government benefits.

Many other Maryland counties offer first-time defendants similar opportunities, but prosecutors in some counties have said they plan to continue aggressively prosecuting marijuana possession.

iduncan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/iduncan