Indeed, especially given high gasoline costs and a limited number of officers, one of the best ways to save money and maximize public safety resources is to reduce the number of unnecessary trips to the jail, which saves gas and keeps the maximum possible number of officers out on the streets for enforcement. The Texas Legislature passed HB 2391 last year giving police discretion to give citations for more low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors including marijuana possession, though officers can still make arrests if they think the situation warrants it.
But while the Travis County Sheriff's Office has embraced the idea, Austin PD Chief Art Acevedo backed off his initial enthusiasm for the idea because Austin juts into two other counties besides Travis - Williamson and Hays - which decided not to use the new authority. Essentially, then, Austin PD let its more conservative neighbors drag its policy down to the lowest common denominator, eschewing authority they clearly possess under the new law.
A new local group called Keep Austin Safe formed recently to encourage APD to change this policy. Austin attorney Ann del Llano authored a report on their behalf assessing the impact implementing HB 2391 could have on the city budget and public safety. (Conflict alert: Grits is listed on their site's supporter list, and I worked closely with Ms. Del Llano for several years at the Texas ACLU.)
For starters, 37% of Austin PD arrests are eligible to receive citations instead, according to the report. That's a big number - nearly 16,000 trips to the jail each year. While giving officers discretion wouldn't mean all those trips were abated, if half of them received citations that would make a significant difference - a reduction of around 22 trips to the jail per day with all the expense and extra time that implies.
The report identifies racial disparities in arrest rates as an argument for changing the policy:
For the optional Class A and B arrests, Blacks are over 3 times more likely to be arrested than non-Blacks. Though Blacks and non-Blacks use marijuana at the same rate, Black people in Austin are over 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for possession of a personal use quantity of marijuana.But similarly disparate ratios exist everywhere in the justice system and I don't think this policy can be blamed in particular for them. Not only will disparities still exist if the policy's changed, they might even worsen if officers get to decide who to arrest (depending on how they use their discretion).
More compelling to me is the public safety critique - particularly arguments about seldom-discussed opportunity costs. Del Llano writes that:
Austin police are not solving our serious crimes. APD only clears 42% of Part 1 Violent Crimes and 12% of Part 1 Property Crimes that occur in Austin.The report also includes an appendix with suggested language for an APD policy taking advantage of the new HB 2391 authority. Whether or not they enact such a measure, it's a good starting point for other jurisdictions looking to cut costs and focus more resources on serious crimes.
Austin is a more dangerous city because APD refuses to implement the Citation Option. APD officers are not available to solve violent crimes or more serious property crimes because they are busy arresting and booking people for these low-level nonviolent misdemeanor Citation Option offenses.
See prior, related Grits coverage of HB 2391:
- Nuts and bolts of citations for low-level misdemeanors explained by Travis Sheriff's Office
- On the source of volitional jail overcrowding in Bexar County: Why solve a problem when you can create one?
- Tyler officials should listen to voters, use new tools to reduce jail overcrowding
- Note to MSM: Please stop repeating error on jail overcrowding law
- Counties balking at giving officers discretion on low-level arrests
- Tuff on crime meet reality at the Nacogdoches County Jail
- Sheriffs more likely than PDs to welcome new arrest discretion
- Jefferson County works out kinks with new cite and summons authority
- How one Texas county will take advantage of new law to reduce jail overcrowding
- HB 2391 could save Bexar taxpayers $10,000 per day
- Bexar jail administrator: Stop arrests for nonviolent misdemeanors
- DA Susan Reed blocking key Bexar jail overcrowding solution
- Midland Sheriff's Captain: Cite and summons for low-level offenses would reduce jail overcrowding
- Cite and summons for low-level offenses could free up jail space
- Texas Lege approved new tools to reduce jail overcrowding, if police can change their thinking
- DAs thwarting jail overcrowding solutions