The Austin Chronicle

Getting a Ticket Beats Going to Jail

By Jordan Smith, October 10, 2008, News

After meeting last month with law enforcement representatives from Travis, Williamson, and Hays counties, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo says his department is now ready to begin implementing the so-called cite-and-release law that allows officers to issue citations for low-level nonviolent misdemeanor crimes instead of taking offenders in for a night in jail. "The cops are on board," says Acevedo. "We're all in favor of it."

Concerned about overcrowding in county jails and overburdened county budgets, state lawmakers last year enacted House Bill 2391, which offers police a choice to issue a citation to offenders nabbed for a handful of low-level class A and B misdemeanor crimes – including certain criminal mischief and graffiti charges, driving under a suspended license, and possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana. The citation option doesn't change the charge or the possibility of eventual conviction and sentencing to jail time (up to six months for class B and up to a year for class A). But it does eliminate preconviction arrest and jail time – a strategy intended to cut costs directly associated with the booking process, as well as manpower costs, leaving more officers on the streets at any given time.

According to a report released in June by local advocates with Austin Public Safety Solutions, 37% of arrests in 2007 were on misdemeanor charges eligible for cite-and-release, which would have saved the city at least $5.4 million. (Exactly how many of those individuals would have met the specific legal requirements for release isn't clear.)

The Travis County Sheriff's Office was quick to embrace the new law, which went into effect Sept. 1, 2007. Last fall, TCSO spokesman Roger Wade said his office estimated that some 7,000 people booked into the jail in 2006 would have qualified for cite-and-release, saving the county about $1.2 million. And the agency is likely to see additional savings when other factors, such as the cost of gasoline, are added in, he said. Indeed, the TCSO along with the Travis County Attorney's Office were integral in crafting and vetting the legislation eventually passed by state lawmakers, said County Attorney David Escamilla. "We've been behind it all along," he said. Escamilla notes that the law did not create a new right of discretion for police – instead, he said, it was codified as a way to support police when they make discretionary decisions. "This is not the first time we've talked about not arresting somebody," he said. Officers are sometimes wary of exercising discretion if they feel they might be called out for stepping beyond what another, perhaps a supervisor, might do. This law, he said, "gives more security to officers" – an assurance that at least for particular offenses they're not "outside the law" when they choose not to arrest. TCSO's Wade says the agency is working with lawmakers on amending the law next year to increase the number of offenses eligible for citation release.

Still, Acevedo initially seemed reluctant to embrace the law. The Austin Police Department was worried about "continuity," he said. Because portions of the city snake into both Williamson and Hays counties, he said he first wanted to make sure that officials in those counties were also on board with the law. Last month, Acevedo convened a "roundtable" of officials representing each county, and, it turns out, there was "unanimous" support for the law, according to meeting minutes. As such, Acevedo says that APD is ready to roll with the new law, which he said should be fully implemented by the end of the year.

Under the law, only those individuals who are popped with proper identification, have committed the offense in the county in which they live, and are not also facing more serious criminal charges are eligible for cite-and-release. And, of course, police still retain discretion to arrest for any of the listed offenses (for example, if a person pulled over and driving on a suspended license isn't riding with a properly licensed passenger, it's unlikely an officer would let the person drive off with a citation release), particularly if an officer finds that a release would pose a continuing threat to public safety.

Still, there are a few administrative kinks to work out, said Acevedo, including making sure that individuals given a citation know where and when they must appear in front of a magistrate (currently, Justice of the Peace Herb Evans has stepped up to handle the job) for a hearing on the charge to get the prosecutorial ball rolling. Where and when individuals will be fingerprinted and face a thorough warrant check (in any initial stop an officer might not be alerted to warrants pending in other jurisdictions, for example) are still being ironed out, he said.

Ultimately, the cite-and-release option is "another tool" to add to the law enforcement "toolbox," says TCSO spokesman Wade. And already, he says, "we believe it has been effective."

Cite-And-Release Offenses

Possession of marijuana, up to 4 ounces

Criminal mischief, where damage is up to $500

Graffiti, where pecuniary loss is up to $500

Theft, up to $500

Theft of service, up to $500

Providing contraband to a person in jail

Driving with an invalid license

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