FAQ: Harris County new 'cite and release' for certain crimes

As of this week, some crimes committed in Harris County will no longer land you in the back of a cop car.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez doesn’t have to worry about having the authority to implement a cite and release program.

Back in 2007 Texas lawmakers gave peace officers the right to issue citations in lieu of arrest for certain class A or B misdemeanor crimes under certain circumstances.

“We have a growing jail population here,” said Gonzalez. “We house close to 9.000 every month and in the past, we’ve had to outsource because we’ve reached capacity and we don’t want to do that, we want to make sure there’s enough bed space for more violent criminals.”

A newly-implemented Cite & Release Program will allow some residents charged with low-level offenses to be screened and considered for citation.

In a series of tweets on Wednesday, Gonzalez explained that, "currently, thousands of people each year spend two or three days in our Harris County Jail before being released. This initiative will improve the efficiency of the local criminal justice system by saving dollars spent on short jail stays that can be reinvested in more important public safety matters."

Citations will not be written when the offender poses a public safety risk, demands to immediately appear before a magistrate, or needs medical attention.

“There are places where we need to be more firm on violent crime,” the sheriff said. “We want to deploy more resources on that which as an agency we are already doing but we only have limited resources so we have to pick our battles.”

How do they know it will work?
Sheriff Gonzalez says the initiative is modeled after programs in other jurisdictions that he says have proven highly effective.

Who qualifies?
Under Texas Code of Criminal Procedures (Article 14.06) qualifying offenses include certain drug possession under 4 ounces, criminal mischief under $750 in damage, graffiti under $2,500 in damage, theft under $750, or being caught with something you were not supposed to have while in a correctional facility. Driving with an invalid license will also qualify so long as the driver is not the at-fault driver in a crash.

A person cannot qualify if they are under 17 years old, are currently on parole, or have outstanding warrants. An officer will decline to offer a citation if releasing the person would be a public safety risk (e.g. they are drunk, making violent threats, etc.) An officer cannot release a person on a citation if the person demands an immediate appearance before a magistrate, or if the person is in need of medical attention. 

If a violater qualifies, the officer must confirm their identity and residency within Harris County. A background check will be performed and the District Attorney's office will be called to confirm the case is eligible. The officer will then require the person to sign a Cite and Release Citation form.

Why the change?
On Twitter, Sheriff Gonzalez points to jail overcrowding as a reason behind the move. "We want to be smart with resources we do have," he explains, "and be proactive in our crime-fighting efforts to apprehend these more serious criminals. Having jail space is important to house these more serious criminals. With over 8500 inmates daily, space is always in demand and I prefer not to have to outsource to other jurisdictions."

Will the Houston Police Department also start doing this?
Yes. In a tweet posted Tuesday, HPD Chief Art Acevedo said his department's been working closely with the Sheriff and will roll out the program soon. In 2008, he launched a similar program while Chief of Police in Austin, TX and, "contrary to prediction of critics, we greatly reduced violent crime."

Are they allowed to do this?
In 2007, Texas Legislature authorized HB 2391 to allow officers the ability to issue a citation to someone suspected of committing certain Class A or B misdemeanor offense.

What guides are being given to arresting officers and deputies?
FOX26 was given the following letter, which gives a glimpse into how Harris County Sheriff's Office are being instructed to handle the policy.