Last year, Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson promised that anyone caught with less than 4 ounces of marijuana would no longer be arrested on the spot, spend a night in jail and a pay an expensive bond to get out. But so far, not much has changed.
In 2017, 70 percent of people charged with marijuana possession received money bonds, according to data from The Justice Collaborative Engagement Project, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group. In 2018, that number decreased by only 1 percent but should have gone down significantly if the DA was trying to uphold cite-and-release.
Cite-and-release isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. Texas is still one of 20 states that criminalizes all marijuana. What the program, approved by the Dallas City Council, was supposed to do was send fewer people to jail, putting them at risk of losing jobs or paying bail bondsmen. Fewer people have been charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession in the county since last year, according to the advocacy group's numbers, but the percentage of those who must pay bail to get out of jail has hardly changed.
Before cite-and-release, being caught with less than 4 ounces of weed meant being arrested, getting your car impounded, having to take off of work, getting fired, or being barred from any number of regular activities you can’t do from inside a jail cell. It usually meant paying an expensive bond to get out.
This year, the average bond amount was $799.
Without some type of incentive, law enforcement can still opt out of the program — and according to the high percentage of bonds still being imposed, it seems many Dallas law enforcers are doing just that.
Christian Watkins, a board member of the Community Bail Fund of North Texas, said he helped raise more than $30,000 in bail funds for 24 people this year. According to the group’s statistics, more than 70 percent of Dallas County Jail inmates cannot afford to pay bail.
“It does not surprise me that trends haven't changed because the fact is America, Texas, Dallas all have a history of instituting programs and then not enforcing them the way they said they would,” Watkins said. “It’s disheartening more than anything else.”
Jennifer Soble, a legal counselor with the Justice Collaborative Engagement Project, said she could see a robust cite-and-release program being incentivized in several ways.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
“The DA could pledge to not prosecute anyone eligible for cite-and-release but who didn't receive it,” Soble said. “If there was a DA who was concerned about fixing these things it would be pretty easy to do.”
Among other promises from Johnson was a two-month program for offenders. Once they completed it, her office would dismiss misdemeanor marijuana charges. She also promised personal recognizance bonds — no money needed — for anyone with first-time marijuana charges outside the city of Dallas but at Dallas County jail.
Sighs of relief were audible late last year when cite-and-release was finally implemented after a two-month delay by Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who didn’t think the program was fair since it didn’t cover those outside of the city of Dallas but within Dallas County lines.
The DA’s office did not respond to questions from the Observer about cite-and-release implementation.