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Who Killed Dallas' Marijuana Cite-and-Release Program?

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Last fall, Dallas County announced that it and the Dallas Police Department were going to pluck the lowest of low-hanging criminal justice reforms and implement cite-and-release, a policy that gives cops the option of issuing a citation to people suspected of certain class A and B misdemeanors — notably possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana — rather than hauling them to jail. Cite-and-release, which local governments have been authorized to enact since 2007 under a law passed by the Texas Legislature, wouldn't change the potential punishment for the misdemeanors (as much as a year in jail, though probation is a far more likely outcome), nor would it change the fact that suspects would have to show up for court hearings. It would, however, keep arresting officers from wasting hours transporting and booking nonviolent offenders into jail and save Dallas County the $63-per-day it costs to house them. With the county estimating 250-ish suspects per month who would otherwise sit behind bars for an average of about 10 days, the savings could creep toward $2 million per year.

The initial plan was to roll out the new policy at the start of 2015, but it took time to line up police, prosecutors, judges and various other courthouse interests and craft citation forms and procedures that mimic the jail book-in process closely enough to ensure that fingerprints are collected and a suspect's identity is established. By the time Dallas County criminal justice director Ron Stretcher briefed Dallas County commissioners in December 2014, the expected launch of a pilot cite-and-release program had been pushed back to March 1.

March 1 came and went and ... crickets. It was like cite-and-release had vanished into thin air. Marijuana possessors were still cooling their heels in Lew Sterrett jail at the same rate as they'd always been. None of them were escaping with a citation. And Stretcher, the chief architect of the proposal who is typically happy to discuss criminal justice reforms with the media, had gone strangely silent, not responding to occasional inquiries from the Observer or, apparently, The Dallas Morning News. So, we got a bunch of Stretcher's emails through an open records request.

To save any suspense, Dallas County's cite-and-release pilot is dead. The more interesting question is who or what killed it, and Stretcher's emails point to two likely, partially overlapping culprits: bureaucratic infighting and DPD intransigence. (A similar request for the emails of DPD's command staff yielded zero documents, and DPD hasn't responded to requests for comment.)

Stretcher, the emails show, began crafting the cite-and-release policy in June 2014 in the face of questions from the media and others. Dallas County and DPD had tried cite-and-release briefly in 2007 and 2008 but quickly abandoned it, largely because 60 percent of those cited under the program — and often the arresting officer himself — didn't show up for court. "But," Stretcher wrote in a June 19 email to Sheriff Lupe Valdez, "there were a lot of administrative barriers and it might be more successful if those could be worked through." Valdez was open-minded. "Maybe the time is right currently," she replied. "I am willing to give it a try." So were other county officials and departments and, it seemed, DPD. Stretcher met with representatives of DPD's narcotics unit in August. A month later, in a September 16 missive to County Judge Clay Jenkins, Stretcher describes DPD as "really wanting to try cite and release on their marijuana cases. Last time, law enforcement tried it very grudgingly, so I am sure that impacted the results. We are really focusing on the fact that cite and release will allow officers to spend more time on the streets where needed and less time at the jail booking in defendants on misdemeanor charges."

By October, cite-and-release had a schedule (hearings every Wednesday) and a designated courtroom (an old truancy courtroom on the fourth floor of the Frank Crowley Courthouse, now referred to as the Adult Case Management System's "War Room"). On October 23, three weeks after Stretcher announced the cite-and-release pilot to the press, Etho Pugh, Dallas County's jail population coordinator, estimated that implementation was 60 days away.

According to the emails, the first hint of a problem came in December, on the eve of Stretcher's county commissioners briefing. Pugh reported being quizzed by DPD Assistant Chief Charles Cato following a cite-and-release presentation to Dallas County's Criminal Justice Advisory Board. Cato "indicated that this project was not endorsed by the Dallas Police Department and wanted to know who bought [sic] it to us to reinstate." Two days later Pugh had a phone call with another assistant chief, Vernon Hale, and reported to Stretcher that Hale 

...is under the impression that Chief Cato was being contentious about the Cite and release plan going before commissioners court without their knowledge and not having someone from DPD at Court to explain any issues that may arose (sic). Chief Hale however does have a different take on how he wants the Cite and Release rolled out, they are as follows:

  • The County needs to produce the citation or document that DPD needs to issue.
  • Does not think that cherry picking marijuana cases will benefit DPD. Wants to utilize all eligible charges.
  • Time saving to Dallas Police should be core issue. If we are just suggesting Marijuana cases they don’t see the time savings to their Department

During a brief phone conversation Tuesday morning, Hale said he didn't have a strong recollection of the discussions but that "generally we believe shouldn't be focused on one aspect of it" and that DPD wanted to expand cite-and-release to include offenses like theft rather than just marijuana possession. Asked if the county had been willing to negotiate on that point, Hale said he had to go to training and couldn't talk until later.

Stretcher met with Hale and Deputy Chief Randall Blankenbaker in mid-January, after which Stretcher seems to written cite-and-release off as dead. "I am not confident that we will ever make cite and release work," he wrote to reform advocate Josh Gravens on January 23. A month later, Stretcher recommended the county oppose a bill filed in the Texas Legislature that would have made cite-and-release mandatory. "We have tried cite and release in the past and it did not work. We have looked at another pilot, but have put that process on hold as Dallas PD is no longer interested." In a separate email the same day, Stretcher described cite and release as "a beating about the head I wish would just go away."

In a phone conversation on Friday, Stretcher said that Blankenbaker made it clear in the January meeting that DPD wasn't interested in pursuing cite-and-release. "They got to looking at that, [and] OK, you can let them go with that citation, but then you still have to ... tag it [marijuana], turn it in for processing. You still gotta go back and write in the case for charges." The time savings, in other words, would be minimal.

Stretcher says he hasn't totally given up on cite-and-release. He plans to give it another shot as part of Dallas County's participation in the Stepping Up initiative, which aims to curb the number of mentally ill jail inmates. That said, although his "whole deal is about getting people out of jail and getting people into treatment," he doesn't view cite and release as a particularly promising tool. "I always [tell] advocates that love this, this does not decriminalize marijuana." He said their efforts would be better focused on reducing penalties for marijuana possession by convincing lawmakers to knock the offense down to a class C misdemeanor, equivalent to a traffic ticket.

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