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Dallas County Will Experiment with Not Arresting People Caught with Marijuana

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Get caught with a joint in Dallas this afternoon and you'll find yourself being chauffeured to Lew Sterrett in the back of a squad car. Get caught with a joint in Dallas this January and you may well escape with a ticket and a stern admonition to show up in court.

The Dallas Morning News reported over the weekend that Dallas County will pilot a cite-and-release program next year allowing those caught with less than two ounces of marijuana, a Class B misdemeanor, to avoid a trip to jail.

Before you hail Dallas County as a paragon of criminal justice reform, however, keep in mind a handful of caveats. This is essentially the lowest-hanging fruit of criminal justice reform. Weed aficionados will still face up to a $2,000 fine and 180 days in jail (though most will get off with probation or be eligible for a diversion program), but Dallas County won't be out the $63 it takes to house an inmate for a day, and police won't have to waste precious hours ferrying potheads to jail. Plus, the county could have been doing this since 2007, when the legislature allowed local jurisdictions to implement cite-and-release, and Dallas Police Chief David Brown told us earlier this year that he planned to continue locking up pot users until the legislature orders him to do otherwise.

See also: Police Chief David Brown Says Dallas Will Keep Locking Up Pot Users Until the Legislature Makes It Stop

Brown's attitude has apparently softened. He hasn't responded to a message seeking comment, but Dallas County criminal justice director Ron Stretcher says the cite-and-release experiment was initiated by DPD about two months ago.

"DPD came and asked us to take a look at that," Stretcher says. "[They] wanted to kind of start it out on the marijuana cases."

Whatever Brown's reason for his change-of-heart, Stretcher was receptive. The county actually did try a cite-and-release program shortly after the law was passed in 2007, he says, which covered marijuana arrests as well as a half-dozen other misdemeanors like criminal mischief and driving without a license, but it was marred by poor planning and a large percentage of defendants skipping court dates. Cops, prosecutors, and judges were "not all completely committed to the process."

See also: Dallas Could Have Stopped Jailing People For Marijuana Possession in 2007, But It Hasn't

This time, Stretcher is optimistic things will be different. The previous incarnation of the program was originated by the county, which had to convince sometimes reluctant cops to play along. This time, it's the cops who are leading the charge. And officials are being much more meticulous about planning for implementation this time, for example drafting cite-and-release forms and running them by cops, prosecutors, and judges to be sure they pass muster.

Some hurdles remain. Without defendants being booked in and having all 10 fingerprints taken, prosecutors and the courts worry that police might have difficulty firmly establishing a person's identity. To minimize these concerns, only pot-users with a valid state ID showing an address in Dallas County will be eligible for cite-and-release. And there's always the danger that the defendant won't show up for court.

Joe Ptak, who's been advocating for the wider adoption of cite-and-release programs in the state, says the no-show problem is minimal when implemented in an intelligent way. Hays County, home of San Marcos, has 95 percent of defendants show up. The benefits, meanwhile, can be tremendous for cops and jails. In Travis County, about 5,500 offenders go through the cite-and-release program, which represents a significant savings in officers time and jail costs.

He hopes the legislature in 2015 will force state agencies (e.g. the Texas Department of Public Safety and university police departments) to adopt cite-and-release, which would establish a statewide framework for the program and allow municipalities to implement the program without going through the complicated dance they currently must do with courts and prosecutors.

"It really seems like we're still swimming upstream," Ptak says, "but the forces against us are starting to weaken."

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.

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