The cite-and-release policy adopted by Harris County and the city of Houston was billed as a way to keep more officers on the streets and fewer people in jail for those charged with low-level, non-violent misdemeanor offenses.
The sheriff’s office was the first to begin using cite-and-release in February of 2020; the city of Houston then adopted its own policy in September of that year.
The Texas Legislature passed cite-and-release in 2007.
Every year the Harris County District Attorney’s Office files approximately 50,000 misdemeanor cases. To help address this number, the county and city adopted cite-and-release policies.
According to Harris County Sheriff’s Sgt. Raymond Lomelo, cite-and-release has only been used “approximately 425″ times since the policies went into effect. Lomelo said that figure includes cite-and-release cases issued by all participating law enforcement agencies in the county.
Cite-and-release only applies to certain misdemeanor crimes like theft and theft of service up to $750, driving with an invalid or suspended license, possession of drugs less than 4 ounces, criminal mischief up to $750 in damages, graffiti up to $2,500, and possession of contraband in a correctional facility. The person also has to be a resident of Harris County to qualify for cite-and-release.
“How much of this is left to the officer’s discretion?” asked KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.
“Quite a bit of it, we encourage the officers to utilize it when it’s available,” said Lomelo.
Lomelo said if a person has warrants for their arrest or is facing multiple charges, then cite-and-release wouldn’t be used.
“If you’re exhibiting behavior that leads the deputy to believe that you would be violent or harm yourself or others, we’re absolutely not going to use this option,” said Lomelo.
Lomelo said he instructs deputies to think about cite-and-release when applicable because it helps keep them available to answer more critical calls instead of shuttling suspects to the jail in downtown,
“You’re looking at an hour-and-a-half, two hours on a good day, just to get downtown,” said Lomelo.
The policies are also meant to help with jail overcrowding by issuing a citation instead of jailing someone for a minor, non-violent offense. Mayor Sylvester Turner also billed the city’s policy as somewhat of a “second chance” during a September 2020 news conference.
“The program gives them an opportunity to make changes in their lives and face responsibilities for their actions without having the stain of an arrest or serving jail time on their record,” Turner said.
Houston police declined to speak about how the policy is being implemented, saying they need more time to analyze the data.
“I think the numbers are really low,” said Doug Griffith, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union. “We have had some officers express their concern about this because, again, it’s an offense (and) by state law they need to go to jail for it.”
Griffith also argues that cite-and-release does not save that much time in misdemeanor theft cases since officers still have to collect and document evidence.
“At the end of the day, that is not going to make or break our department, as far as cite-and-release,” said Griffith.
Founder of Black Lives Matter Houston, Ashton Woods pushed the city and county to adopt this type of policy but says the numbers show it’s not a priority.
“Everything has potential,” said Woods. “I think the reality is, this was just for show.”