It has taken some time — either a little over a year or a little over eight years, depending on how you count it — but the city of Dallas and the Dallas Police Department finally appear ready to arrest fewer people for marijuana possession.
Since 2007, Texas law has allowed local law enforcement to ticket and then release people found with less than 2 ounces of marijuana or who may have committed certain other misdemeanor offenses, like theft. The penalties for those who are cited and released are just as stiff as those for people booked into jail — up to a $2,000 fine and six months in jail for possession.
"Here's the main drawback [of cite-and-release]. The main drawback is that, at the end of the day, the offense penalties stay the same. Nothing else changes. You're still faced with taking probation or taking your jail time and paying your court cost and fine. I certainly hope, and if indeed we try this, I will encourage everyone in our system to look at some new heuristics on how we sentence these cases. It doesn't save us anything on jail if [the] outcome is that they still have to come do 30 days in jail," Dallas County Criminal Justice Department Director Ron Stretcher says. "The benefits [of cite-and-release] to me, I think the first benefit is to the defendant. If you're getting arrested, it makes sure you don't get deeply embedded in the system. There's a lot of studies that show even a day in jail is detrimental to you. We believe by not having to come into jail, folks won't be disrupted with their job and won't have as much stigma and embarrassment."
Cite-and-release is not decriminalization, Stretcher emphasizes, and the county is ready to work with whatever program DPD decides to implement.
For officers in the field, the cite-and-release pilot program, which will initially only be applied to marijuana arrests, will mean scales and devices to collect thumbprints in squad cars. A sergeant will have to supervise weighing the drug to ensure it is a misdemeanor amount before approving a summons rather than a trip to jail. Summonses would be issued for a specific day of the week — Wednesday is the current plan — so cops and people caught with weed would know in advance which days they would have to show up to court.
In an email Friday, Dallas Police Chief David Brown admitted that his department has struggled to find either enough time savings or cost reduction to make a cite-and-release program worthwhile. The department is again trying to find a way for cite-and-release to make sense, he said, but marijuana arrests only make up about 1,200 of DPD's 50,000 annual arrests. Because of the extra time needed in the field to weigh the drugs, bag them as evidence and take them to the police property room, officers may not save much time over current procedures.
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Brown is bringing the program back to the Dallas City Council Public Safety Committee because some members of the committee wanted it.
"I think as a practical matter it's going to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, because what cop is going to want to write the ticket and then go down and testify on a B misdemeanor," Dallas City Council Member Philip Kingston says. "I'm as transparent about this as I can be. My hope is that this will finally convince DPD to ignore marijuana. That is my goal, that they will ignore marijuana. I know that I don't have the power to legalize the stuff, but I do have the power to correctly allocate criminal justice resources that are under my control so that they aren't spent on pot."
Kingston says he expects cite-and-release will make it past the Public Safety Committee Tuesday. If it does, it would head to the full City Council for a vote, probably some time early in 2016.