Cite and Release: A Law Unused is Costing Taxpayers Millions

Nearly a decade ago, Texas undertook an initiative to relieve jail overcrowding, increase police efficiency, and save millions of dollars: cite and release. The innovative justice reform law allows police to simply issue a citation (like a ticket) to people accused of low-level non-violent misdemeanors and release them with a promise to appear in court at a future date. This law eliminates the need to book every accused citizen into the local county jail thus saving significant police hours (they can get back to patrol much faster) and county jail processing time and expense (booking in, setting bonds, providing magistrate hearings, housing costs, booking out)!

Yet, Harris County claims they simply cannot utilize this law due to a computer problem.

In an interview with the Houston Press last week, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said that it’s not because she’s opposed to cite and release that Harris County cops aren’t doing it. It’s because of a computer software problem. Yes, scores of low-level offenders are still having to go to jail pretrial, even though the Legislature said they don’t have to, because of pesky technical difficulties.

The problem is, Anderson said, unlike when writing traffic tickets, cops apprehending people on the side of the road for jailable offenses have no way of generating a court date for those people on the spot. So they wouldn’t be able to simply write a ticket and let them go. Anderson said that replicating the municipal court’s computer system would require overhauling the software and infrastructure for more than 80 police agencies in Harris County. “I don’t even know how it would work,” she said.

upgradeSo, the computer system has no way of generating a court date on the spot. Hmmm… How about selecting a pre-determined day and manually assigning it? Back in the day, the City of Houston officer issuing a traffic ticket had an assigned court day. Each officer had his own. When he wrote a ticket, if his day were Wednesday, for example, he assigned a court day of Wednesday 3-weeks out. Seemed to work quite well for a number of years. Didn’t even take a computer program! (Additionally, the officer can actually telephone the 24 hour District Clerk intake and get an assigned court and court date – since they are already calling the 24 hour DA intake.) Yes, perhaps an updated computer system would help, but 9 years has passed and no one has bothered to look into a new system or new software? In the meantime, a manual process certainly sounds better than continuing to ignore the law which could contribute significantly to reducing jail populations.

Despite the fact that Harris County has spent months chasing (and obtaining) a $4million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to address jail overcrowding, the District Attorney and Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council didn’t even bother to consider utilizing the law’s cite and release option. The Coordinating Council wanted to ease jail overcrowding. Hmmm… Issuing citations to approximately 14,500 people who could have qualified for cite and release in 2015 alone certainly would have lessened the burden on the jail. The District Attorney wanted to focus on diversion efforts. Hmmm… Issuing citations to appear could accomplish the same diversion as soon as the accused appeared.

Diversion is a wonderful tool, don’t misunderstand. But, it only applies to the first-time offender rather than all. Citations, under the law, apply equally to all – whether a first offender or not. Of course, the cite and release law only applies to certain low-level non-violent misdemeanors – the very people targeted under the MacArthur Grant for release to ease jail overcrowding. Cite and release only applies to:

  • Possession of marijuana, up to 4 ounces
  • Criminal mischief, where damage is up to $750
  • Graffiti, where pecuniary loss is up to $750
  • Theft, up to $750
  • Theft of service, up to $750
  • Providing contraband to a person in jail
  • Driving with an invalid license

Nonetheless, our District Attorney instead chose to focus on arrest and conviction diversions for first-time offenders which started with marijuana under 2 ounces and has not yet expanded beyond that (as far as arrests and jail time are concerned). While this is a great endeavor, it does not make near the impact that cite and release would. To date, it has applied to about 1,500 people. (Compare that to the 14,500 cite and release would address.)

Releasing citizens, with proper identification and no outstanding warrants or other aggravating factors, would not only ease the jail overcrowding but also save significant time and resources. Officers could return to patrol much quicker without having to arrest and “book” a person into the jail. The jail would not have to process as many individuals on a daily basis. Citizens could return to work and take care of family without the fear and reality of losing a job after a day or two (or more) of pretrial incarceration. Citizens, able to return to work and take care of family obligations are also less likely to reoffend. It’s a win!

But also, we aren’t even considering it – because the software isn’t already set up to do it. That’s likely the weakest excuse I’ve heard yet.

About JoAnne Musick

JoAnne Musick is a criminal, juvenile and family lawyer and is board certified in both criminal and juvenile law. She is a two-time past president of HCCLA (the only president to serve two terms) and is active in many legal organizations including TCDLA. JoAnne is also a regular contributor at Fault Lines, HCCLA, and her own blog. Catch up with her on social media @joannemusick.