13 Investigates why a program to reduce jail backlog isn't being used

Monday, February 27, 2023
13 Investigates why a program to reduce jail backlog isn't being used
Houston and Harris County adopted cite and release policies to keep some low-level offenders out of jail. 13 Investigates why it's only been used about 550 times.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- The time it takes Harris County Sheriff's deputies to arrest, transport and file paperwork for a single incident can take hours, even for misdemeanor charges like possession of marijuana, graffiti or low-level thefts.

"If you arrested someone at 5:30 in Katy and we're driving downtown, you might be two hours before you even make it to the jail, let alone the time that you would spend there doing the jail process, that intake process," Harris County Sheriff's Office Lt. Raymond Lomelo told 13 Investigates. "It could range anywhere from a couple hours to five hours if you're a brand new staff member."

But, responding to certain non-violent crimes doesn't always have to take deputies that long.

In some misdemeanor cases, a Texas law passed in 2007 allows law enforcement to write the alleged offender a ticket instead of arresting them. The offender is still required to show up to court or a diversion program, but bypasses a trip to jail.

When the cite and release law was passed 16 years ago, it was billed as a measure that could help free up jail beds, which is something advocates say could help the Harris County Jail as it grapples with understaffing, overcrowding and delays in booking time.

SEE ALSO: Harris Co. DA supports but questions plan for new courts to alleviate jail overcrowding

Houston and Harris County law enforcement agencies adopted local cite and release policies in recent years, but 13 Investigates found it isn't being used in every case that qualifies.

Since local policies were adopted in 2020, a joint dashboard between the city and county shows just 521 people received tickets instead of getting arrested.

In Bexar County, the district attorney told 13 Investigates the San Antonio Police Department is prioritizing the program and saving taxpayers millions.

"For the last three and a half years, 7,300 times SAPD has made a decision to cite that individual versus arresting them and that's been a big bonus to our community in terms of money saved," Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales said. "On the average, it takes about $750 to book an individual. As a result of this program, we have now saved the county over $5 million. That's a substantial savings I think."

The cite and release program only applies to certain Class A and Class B misdemeanors, including possession of less than four ounces of marijuana or a controlled substance, criminal mischief, theft or graffiti between $100 and $750, contraband at a correctional facility or driving while license invalid, according to the Harris County Sheriff's Office's policy, which is mirrored after the state law allowing such programs.

To qualify for cite and release, an offender must also be 18 years or older and live in the county where the alleged offense occurred.

Lomelo said that could be one reason tickets aren't being issued as often.

"Because of the area that we're in, we're very mobile. People are living in one county, working in another and playing in a third, (all) in a day's time, so if we could have (the law apply to) contiguous counties, that might be preferable," he said.

Other reasons why a person would not qualify for the program and require an arrest include if they have outstanding warrants, are injured, are violent or have a history of not showing up in court.

Ultimately, Lomelo said the sheriff's office always gives staff discretion when deciding when to use cite and release because the deputy in the field has better insight into each incident.

"If the individual's behavior leads an officer to believe that leaving them there would put themselves or other members of the public in jeopardy, that's an exclusion to utilizing cite and release," he said. "They can see everything in real time and so I think it's important to leave (deputies) with that discretion and that ability to make good decisions. Hopefully we can empower them through training and good policy to make good decisions."

13 Investigates asked city and county officials for specific details on why people arrested for eligible offenses were not cited instead, but we were not provided with that information.

Advocates with a nonprofit civil rights group say that level of detail is needed to determine if the program is being implemented in Texas communities as intended.

Jennifer Carreon, director of Texas Appleseed's Criminal Justice Project, has studied cite and release and said in the cases they've reviewed, 12% of statewide arrests could have been issued a ticket under the program instead.

"It's important to us that local governments who are spending taxpayer dollars do the work, do the research, be committed to showing your people that we are doing the best thing we can for you to ensure not just that your money is being put to good use, but to make sure that we are trying to achieve public safety in the most effective manner," she said.

'Limited' information on usage

When Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner signed cite and release into city policy by executive order in September 2020, he said it would reduce the time police officers spend at the jail processing low-level offenders, improve response time and give the accused a second chance.

"There are approximately 3,000 cases from last year that would have been eligible under the cite and release policy so going forward, we should experience a decline in the number of low-level offenders going to jail as a direct result of the cite and release program," Turner during the program's launch in 2020.

RELATED: HPD officers will now 'cite and release' minor offenses

13 Investigates wanted to know why the Houston Police Department has only used cite and release a few hundred times since the executive order was signed more than two years ago. We asked HPD for an interview, but did not hear back.

In Bexar County, law enforcement provides a breakdown of the reasons why someone who is accused of a cite and release-eligible offense was arrested instead of ticketed - for example, if they needed medical attention, were uncooperative with law enforcement, were not a resident or were suspected of other criminal behavior.

Take a look at the Bexar County cite and release dashboard

"Despite these disqualifiers being listed out in the executive order, and to some extent within the state statute, Harris County (and) HPD are not reporting on those factors and so you are getting essentially one third of the pie," Carreon said. "In order for city council (and) commissioners to make effective decisions to determine whether or not our law enforcement resources, our jail resources are being used effectively, (you need to) examine that full pie."

Take a look at the Houston-Harris County joint cite and release dashboard

Unlike Bexar County's data, which the district attorney there said took about six months to create, the shared Houston-Harris County dashboard doesn't provide information on how much taxpayers are saving by people being cited instead of arrested.

"I wish that our police officers would document every reason for everything that they do on the face of the planet Earth. Then we can all number-crunch everything really good and have a picture of a daily life of any policeman anywhere at any time, but the amount of energy and time and effort it's going take to manage all those records, all that report writing, then we're taking policemen off the street," Houston Councilmember Mike Knox said. "Our choice is either money or safety. Do we want a safe community or do we want to save money?"

Knox, a former law enforcement officer, said although the program is convenient, he is not convinced it is effective at eliminating or reducing crime.

"Right now we're under pressure to not put people in jail because there's 10,000-plus people already in the jail and so we don't have room," Knox said. "Putting minor offenders, shoplifters, etc., in custody for stealing $20 from a local convenience store just adds to an already exacerbated problem, but from an idealistic point of view, when you don't hold people accountable at the moment that they have committed an offense, then you encourage them to continue to do those offenses."

He said the program is convenient for the government - by cutting down on work for officers and freeing up jail space - but it is not convenient for the goal of establishing community values.

"When we hold people less accountable by issuing a cite and release, we're not discouraging that behavior, we're just simply citing them," he said. "They are held accountable in court at some point, but it's like children. Little children respond to immediate correction. You don't wait two months to correct a kid for misbehavior because they just don't get it and I think that the same is true with adults. If there's not something accountable right now, then three or four months down the road, it's just an inconvenience."

In Bexar County, Gonzales said they have found the accused are actually less likely to reoffend when they receive a citation versus when they are arrested on a nonviolent, low-level offense.

Gonzales said about 38% of individuals typically reoffend, but when it comes to misdemeanor offenses where the person is cited instead of arrested, the likelihood they'll reoffend is closer to 8% or 9%.

"I would push back on anybody that thinks that there isn't a benefit as far as consequences. I don't know whether or not just by arresting somebody that guarantees that they're not going to re-offend," Gonzales said. "I think what's more important is how you resolve the case further down the line and of course with a citation comes some skin in the game. We don't just cite the individual and the case is over."

He said whenever someone is cited, they're required to show up at a re-entry center and commit to doing community service, take a drug awareness class or attend some other program related to the offense as an alternative punishment to jail time.

"At the end of the time they've proven themselves and then the case never gets filed," he said.

When 13 Investigates asked Gonzales how often offenders are actually showing up for their alternative punishment, he admits it could be better.

"I've heard we're getting people to show up at about a third of the time. I'd like to see it better than half, but if we get any percentage of people that are taking advantage of this program, I think it is a success," Gonzales said. "People need to see the benefit to this. They need to see, if you just do the minimum and you go to a class or you do some community service the reward could be huge, which is avoiding a conviction on your record."

He said some of the reasons people don't show up are because they could be homeless, can't get off work, have childcare issues or don't have transportation to the re-entry center.

Still, he said every case is looked at individually and because of the interagency cooperation, the county is able to implement a strong program, save taxpayer dollars and freeing officer's time as well as jail space.

"If it's used correctly and it avoids a person going to jail and taking up bed space and that person is cited instead, I think that would at least theoretically bring down the jail population, or at least you would have that bed available for someone who's a more serious offender," he said. "You want somebody who's committing a home invasion or a carjacking or something like that, as opposed to somebody who just got pulled over and arrested for less than announced of marijuana in their possession."

'Changing cultural understandings'

During a typical drug arrest in Harris County, Lomelo said the deputy will identify the offender, determine what to charge them with and send it to the district attorney's office to decide whether or not there's probable cause to move the charge forward.

Then the drug is secured, tagged and labeled so it can be entered into evidence, he said. The deputy fills out an offense report, an arrest report and a summary for the district attorney's office.

"From that point, the individual would be transported to a holding facility, whether an outlying jail or the joint processing center," Lomelo said. "The deputy goes inside, completes another entry into a different database - our offender management system - which is the record that follows a person while they're within the confines of our jail, within our custody, and then the individual's printed and assessed and interviewed to determine his or her welfare and whether or not we need to take emergency interventions, such as if they're in crisis or there's a medical complication."

But, what is sometimes already an hours-long process doesn't stop there.

"We do a medical assessment and that individual, assuming everything goes well, is taken into custody. The deputy leaves, completes the offense report, submits the evidence, and waits for the case to manifest in court," he said.

Cite and release would cut down that process significantly, he said. Although the deputy would still have to submit any evidence and paperwork, they could do it at their convenience and still be available in their district to drive around, patrol and be available for other service calls.

In addition to expanding the offenses eligible for cite and release, and allowing offenders to be eligible if they live in a nearby county, Lomelo said making the ticketing process electronic could also encourage deputies to take advantage of the program more often.

When asked about the success of the program, Lomelo said at the sheriff's office, it was successful for the 200-plus people who were issued citations.

"It's a large undertaking. Like many things, we're changing cultural understandings and we're slowly nicking away at the old way of doing things," Lomelo said. "Even though it's been around since 2007, it's still fairly new to us, but trying to change that culture and improve our response matrix and develop other options and make sure that our folks are always thinking of that first and foremost, I think we're doing good. I think we can always do better and we'll continue to try to do better."