Sept. 19–The future appears hazy for a new Dallas program to issue court summonses to people caught with less than 4 ounces of marijuana instead of arresting them.
Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price told Assistant Police Chief Gary Tittle in a letter last week that the city’s so-called cite-and-release program was dead-on-arrival because of concerns over fairness, bureaucratic procedures and costs. And Price said he wrote the letter “on behalf of Dallas County.”
But on Monday, two of his fellow commissioners said Price’s letter doesn’t speak for them and that cite-and-release is very much alive — even though they share many of his concerns.
Regardless, the program’s Oct. 1 start date now appears unlikely.
The letter confused Tittle and Assistant City Manager Jon Fortune, who oversees public safety. They are uncertain about what to do now and can’t move forward without the county’s cooperation.
“From our perspective, we’re moving forward with the program until the county tells us we can’t,” Fortune said.
Fortune said he may need to soon brief the City Council’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee on its options.
Police and county officials, who run the jail and the courts, have been in talks for months after the City Council approved the program by a 10-5 vote in April.
The council’s vote — over the objections of police associations and after years of talking about the issue — won plaudits from criminal justice reform groups. But the program, which a state law allows, is not an official decriminalization of marijuana. It would spare those cited from the immediate ride to jail, but not from potential legal consequences of the possession charge.
The vote marked a reversal from the prior year, when the council rejected the program by the same margin. Then-Police Chief David Brown had opposed the program, expressing concerns about administering it. Others were concerned about fairness for the Dallas residents who are caught with weed in the small parts of Dallas city limits that fall in Collin, Denton and Rockwall counties.
Those counties declined to sign on as well.
Price cited the uneven enforcement as one of the reasons he was opposed.
He said that Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson, who supports cite-and-release, has agreed on an alternative: not opposing personal-recognizance bonds for defendants charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana who have no other holds or charges.
That way, they will still be booked into jail — eliminating the amount of time officers might save by issuing the citations — but will be released without having to post a cash bond. The change would apply to all county residents.
That way, Price said, “we’re not treating any of our citizens differently.”
Price’s other concern was the bureaucratic process. He said that after he discussed the logistics of the proposed program with Dallas County court employees, he thought the policy would be too burdensome and costly to institute for just 30 to 35 cases each month.
Price said the cite-and-release policy could also end up being more trouble for the defendant. The cases would require defendants to go before a magistrate judge, have fingerprints taken and then come back for another hearing.
“The logistics will eat us alive,” Price said. “All of this feel-good stuff is one thing. It’s something else when you start to talk about process.”
Price said he felt comfortable speaking on the county’s behalf as the co-chair of the county’s jail sanitation and jail population committees, since he oversees the way cases travel through the court system.
Commissioner Elba Garcia said Price “has the right to express his opinion,” but she believes cite-and-release is a good program. She does, however, share many of his concerns about implementing the program.
“The thing is, we have to make it work and we have to make it efficient,” she said.
County Judge Clay Jenkins also supports the program, saying it’s “smart on crime” and will help bring “restorative justice” to the county. And he’s still optimistic. He believes the commissioner’s court will approve a yet-to-be-determined budget for the cite-and-release program.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s cost prohibitive,” he said.
Jenkins said the personal recognizance bonds will likely be used in the meantime. But he added it’s “not ideal smart-on-crime policing” because it still requires an officer’s time.
A commissioner’s court vote is unlikely until October at least. Garcia said she will keep pushing for the plan.
“It’s a good program, not only for the city of Dallas, but for Dallas County,” Garcia said.
Information from The Dallas Morning News