Finally, after years of hard work by advocates and despite a last-minute push by Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, Dallas Police Department officers will begin citing and releasing Dallas residents for marijuana possession Friday, rather than hauling them to jail.
The way it works is simple: Get busted with 4 ounces or less of marijuana and, assuming you haven't committed any other crimes, you won't be spending the night in jail or getting your car impounded. Instead, the officer who discovered your weed will confiscate it and write you a citation, requiring you to show up for the first of two dates in Dallas County's newly created cite-and-release courts. Last year, Dallas Police arrested about 450 people who would've been eligible for cite-and-release.
You get to pick your kids up from school, show up to work the next day and continue any regular activities you might have. As long as you show up to your court dates, you won't be arrested, but the penalties for marijuana possession remain the same — up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000 for holding less than 2 ounces, and up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $4,000 for possessing between 2 and 4 ounces of pot.
Under Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson, first-time offenders are eligible for a diversion program that includes classes, probation and community service. Those who complete the program are eligible to have their charges dismissed.
For those caught with pot outside of the city of Dallas, or in the city of Dallas but outside of Dallas County, the old rules still apply, with a trip to jail all but guaranteed. Those who end up at Dallas County Jail will be able able to get personal recognizance bonds, however, meaning they can get out without posting bail, a measure Johnson promoted in order to make cite-and-release more fair.
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While cite-and-release is better than the alternative, it's still viewed as half measure by those seeking to reform the United States' drug laws.
"The No. 1 misconception [about cite-and-release] is that it somehow changes it to a Class C, traffic-ticket level offense," Jamie Spencer, an Austin attorney who's represented cited and released clients for almost a decade, told the Observer earlier this year. "It's an improvement on automatically arresting everybody immediately — the person will have to go through the arrest process a month from now — but basically all of the things that would have happened to them had they been arrested that night will happen to them."
Cite-and-release is not decriminalization — that's why Price held up county implementation of the program for two months after its proposed Oct. 1 start date — but its proponents believe it's better than doing nothing.
"Are there still some issues? Yes," Dallas County Commissioner Elba Garcia said in October. "We need to try it, though. Without trying, we don't know where the problems could be. More importantly, for my personal perspective, less people in jail can only help."