That doesn't even include thousands of other low-level, non-violent misdemeanants who cycle in and out of the county jail. That's why some law enforcement agencies in Travis County will begin issuing citations instead of arresting pot users starting September 1 under a new statute signed by Gov. Perry this spring. Offenses where citations can be given in lieu of arrests include:
- Marijuana possession, (up to 4 oz)
- Criminal mischief with less than $500 damage
- Graffiti with less than $500 damage
- Theft by check with less than $500 stolen
- Theft of service with less than $500 stolen
- Driving With an Invalid License
The big question on how much this could save will depend on whether the Austin PD will participate, which itself depends a lot on the city council (God help us!) and Austin's new police chief. I suspect, though, that they'll go along with it because Travis jail overcrowding problems are pretty severe. (Plus, let's face it, this is Austin - I'll bet most residents would prefer Matthew McConaughey had been ticketed then left alone instead of arrested that night in 1999.)
Travis joins several smaller counties which have announced they'll implement the new law, and if the policy demonstrates savings without significant public safety harm, I hope the Legislature would mandate citation instead of jail for these offenses in 2009.
My bet: the change will improve public safety, not harm it. Most Texas police departments including Austin's are understaffed, and it's more important to keep officers out on the street looking for real bad guys than it is to have them spend hours locking up some pothead or a guy with an expired drivers license.