Turner set to propose cite-and-release ordinance. County judges say program already available
The Turner administration is set to propose a cite-and-release ordinance that could let people accused of certain misdemeanors off with a ticket instead of an arrest, although Harris County court-at-law judges say the city simply could opt into their existing program.
Details on the city’s proposal were scant Monday, but Houston police executives are set to address it Thursday at City Council’s Public Safety Committee. Cite-and-release programs generally consist of officers giving misdemeanor offenders a written citation with a date and time to appear in court, allowing them to await a hearing without going to jail.
“Certainly, there is a cite-and-release ordinance that will be coming up,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said Monday. “The whole purpose is to provide citations, especially for those misdemeanor offenses, (Classes) A and B. There will be some exceptions, but we’re working to put forth a meaningful cite-and-release program.”
City Council member Abbie Kamin, who chairs the Public Safety Committee and said she has helped work on the policy, praised the effort. “I’m thankful to community groups for advocating for this, and to HPD and Mayor Turner for bringing this forward so quickly,” Kamin said.
Harris County misdemeanor judges, though, said it does not have to be that complicated. They launched a cite-and-release program — with a court that meets every Wednesday — earlier this year. The city, they say, does not have authority to act unilaterally on Class A and B misdemeanors because those cases are tried in the county’s criminal courts, not municipal courts.
All the city and HPD need to do is opt into the program, they said. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office and city of Pasadena are among those that already have done so. It is possible that is what the city’s ordinance — which is still in the works — is designed to do, but the judges said an ordinance is unnecessary.
“They could start tonight,” said Judge Darrell Jordan of Harris County Criminal Court of Law No. 16. “We set up the mechanism, and then they can choose whether to use the tool.”
Judge Franklin Bynum, of Criminal Court at Law No. 8 and founder of the cite-and-release subcommittee, agreed.
“Frankly, my response to that was if they wanted to use cite-and-release, (Chief Art) Acevedo just goes in and says use the cite-and-release,” he said.
A Houston police spokesman deferred to Thursday’s committee hearing for more information. The Houston Police Officers’ Union did not respond to a request for comment.
Since 2007, state law has allowed citations for all Class C misdemeanors — the lowest offenses, filed in city courts — and some in Classes A and B. Among them: possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana; criminal mischief (damage up to $750); graffiti; theft of up to $750; providing contraband in a correctional facility; and driving with an invalid license.
Advocates and elected officials in Houston have been calling for a cite-and-release policy for years. The “Justice Can’t Wait” report, released in July by a broad coalition of Houston-area criminal justice advocacy groups, renewed calls for the policy, and five City Council members echoed that in a letter released late last month.
The mayor’s own transition team recommended such a policy in a 2016 report after Turner was elected. The reports say a cite-and-release policy would help keep low-level offenders out of jail before trial, saving them from jail’s destabilizing consequences. The policy also could save taxpayer money and law enforcement resources, sparing officers the process of bringing and booking offenders into jail, the reports say.
According to the “Justice Can’t Wait” report, an estimated 9 percent of HPD offenses from June 2014 to March 2020 were eligible for citations. Of those, nearly half of the offenders — 48.9 percent — were Black.
Sarah Labowitz, policy and advocacy director for the ACLU of Texas, a member of the coalition that wrote the report, said the citations must be mandatory in place of arrests.
“HPD is wasting millions on racially disparate arrests for petty offenses,” Labowitz said. “To get cite-and-release right, City Council needs to require officers to issue citations instead of arrest people in most circumstances.”
Ashton Woods, a founder of Black Lives Matter Houston, said he similarly was cautious after hearing the news. He said Houston also should review its charter and ordinances to reduce criminalizing nonviolent behavior.
“I’ll take the wait-and-see approach,” he said.
Other Texas cities and counties, including Austin and San Antonio, have cite-and-release policies, although they are not codified by ordinance.
Work on the cite-and-release policy quietly has progressed outside the mayor’s Task Force on Policing Reform, which is expected to release its own recommendations by the end of September.
That group is charged with reviewing a variety of topics including an oversight board widely viewed as flawed and the release of police body camera footage.