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These low-level offenses will now be a part of the city of Houston’s new cite-and-release program, mayor says

HOUSTON – Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner signed an Executive Order Monday authorizing a cite-and-release program for certain low-level, non-violent offenses, allowing officers to issue tickets for some Class A and B misdemeanors, instead of making an arrest.

The policy change will go into effect Tuesday at 6 a.m.

“The cite-and-release program has been implemented in other cities where it has helped to reduce jail population,” Turner said in a press conference Monday. He added that the move would “improve response times by getting officers back into service, more quickly.”

“Cite-and-release is a more humane method of dealing with low-level offenders because the program gives them an opportunity to make changes in their lives and face responsibility for their actions without having the stain of an arrest or jail time on their record,” Turner continued.

The City of Houston will adopt a program implemented by Harris County in February.

The following Class A and B misdemeanors are eligible for tickets instead of jail time:

  • Possession of a controlled substance, if the controlled substance is four ounces or less
  • Criminal Mischief, if the amount of pecuniary loss is $100 or more but less than $750
  • Graffiti, if the amount of pecuniary loss is $100 or more but less than $2500
  • Theft, if the value of the property stolen is $100 or more but less than $750
  • Theft of Service, if the value of the service stolen is $100 or more but less than $750
  • Contraband in a Correctional Facility, if the offense is a Class B misdemeanor
  • Driving with an invalid license

Turner said the city’s Class C misdemeanors were being revised to take into account the policy change. Violent crimes would not apply.

One of the program’s biggest proponents is Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo who said he has tried to implement a program like this since he was hired in 2016. Acevedo brings this program from his former tenure as chief of police in Austin.

Acevedo said monthly reports detailing the number of citations issued will be made available to the public.

“(It’s) not a matter of getting soft on crime, it’s about getting smart on crime,” Acevedo said. “(It’s a) long time coming and long overdue and something we’re very proud of.”

Offenses covered by cite-and-release accounted for approximately 3,000 arrests in Houston last year, Acevedo said.

“This would have applied to folks who have been cited and released and not having to have their cars impounded, that we know disproportionately impacts poor people and communities of color,” Acevedo said.

Under cite-and-release, an officer will ticket an alleged offender and the ticket will include information on when to appear in court and where.

Turner said the policy change comes with exceptions for officers to consider.

“The officers will have to contact the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to review probable cause and to confirm the suspect and charge are eligible for the cite-and-release program, and the officers must also offer the suspect the opportunity to participate in the cite-and-release program,” Turner said.

However, critics said the policy’s exceptions are too extensive and rely heavily on a police officer’s discretion.

“It shouldn’t be at the discretion of officers,” said Ashton P. Woods of Black Lives Matter Houston. The group joined several other organizations in sending a letter to Turner last week outlining concerns about the city’s planned cite and release policy.

Woods Monday said the move was done in haste. The letter contends organizations were not consulted.

“We urge the Mayor and Council to invite grassroots organizations and activists to the table when drafting policies around police accountability and transparency,” the letter urged, claiming the policy “includes a long list of 16 disqualifying circumstances, giving officers nearly unfettered discretion to arrest someone of a citation-eligible offense. By comparison, San Marco’s city and release ordinance has 6 disqualifying circumstances and Austin’s policy has approximately 7 disqualifications,” the letter stated.

The letter also called for Class C Misdemeanors to be included.

“I’m really concerned about the Class C Misdemeanors and the idea that this is weaker than the county’s cite and release,” Woods said.

Turner said the order is a living document and would evolve. The mayor said monthly reports would ensure transparency.

Woods said he hopes so.

“What are the metrics and what are the standards they’re going to be using for the data sharing? We need racial, gender, socioeconomic breakdowns of all of these things,” Woods said.