Thursday, April 26, 2007

Cite and summons for low-level offenses could free up jail space

Good news for local officials managing understaffed and overcrowded jails - the 80th Texas Legislature's best chance to assist counties with the crisis in local jail overcrowding, HB 2391 by Madden, passed on second reading this afternoon on the House floor on a voice vote. See the House Research Organization's bill analysis. The bill would give police officers discretion to cite and summons instead of arrest for a handful of the most common petty crimes, including:
  • 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
  • Contraband in a corrections facility (B misd. only)
  • Driving With an Invalid License
The Midland County jail administrator has supported the idea, as does the jail administrator in Bexar. Why? "It takes just as much time to book them and get rid of them (for misdemeanors) as it does a murderer," says Midland Sheriff's Captain Richard Sexton.

With backing in the Speaker's home county, bipartisan support, and overcrowded jails statewide, this bill's time appears to have come - or at least I hope so. I'm sure a lot of sheriffs with jam-packed jails around the state feel the same way.

By no means does this bill say officers cannot arrest for these offenses, only that they have discretion to cite and summons instead of arrest. They can do this only for prescribed, nonviolent B misdemeanors (except for marijuana possession, where officers would have discretion to issue a summons on any misdemeanor pot charge up to 4 oz). Departments could decide by policy to continue to make arrests in any or all of these situations, but for counties that need them, HB 2391 provides new tools to manage their nonviolent jail populations.

This bill frees up much-needed county jail space for more dangerous offenders and keeps officers on the street enforcing the law instead of spending time at the jail booking someone for writing a bad check or driving with an expired license. It's a good idea that might provide a stopgap for communities struggling to put enough cops on the street and pay for rising jail costs.

No comments: