Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Harris County’s top criminal justice leaders unanimously agreed Thursday to recommit to “cite and release,” a once-lauded but little-used approach to keeping people accused of low-level crimes out of jail and freeing up police to focus on more-serious cases. 

The county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, composed of 17 members ranging from heads of law enforcement to public defenders and advocates, voted on the revival as part of a wide-ranging strategic plan guiding local public safety efforts.

Under the plan, local law enforcement agencies agreed to re-evaluate cite and release efforts, examine why police didn’t fully implement it, develop new written policies and provide additional training on the practice.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office originally spearheaded the cite and release approach in 2020, with proponents pitching it as a win-win for law enforcement and local residents. People arrested for some low-level, nonviolent offenses would receive a citation to appear in court, rather than go to jail for processing. Deputies, in turn, would spend less time transporting people to downtown Houston, where they would be booked into a crowded and violent jail that has since been labeled noncompliant with state jail safety standards.

Five more local law enforcement agencies joined the initiative, including the Houston Police Department, but officers never embraced the approach. Only 342 people were properly cited under the policy as of June 2023, a Abdelraoufsinno investigation revealed last year. Law enforcement officials offered various reasons for the low number, such as inconsistent application of the policy and too many carve-outs for certain types of crimes.

Thousands of nonviolent suspects were eligible to avoid jail in Houston. Why were they booked?

by Eileen Grench / Staff Writer

It remains unclear, however, how committed the region’s largest law enforcement agencies are to the renewed effort.

The council’s bylaws do not require local law enforcement or their partners to implement any specific policies or practices. Council members didn’t set a timeline for taking action or methods of holding agencies accountable to the new plan — though those steps could happen in the coming months.

“Implementation is going to fall to you all,” said Elaine Burakove, president of the nonprofit Justice Management Institute, who led the discussion by Zoom.

Despite Thursday’s vote, the region’s two largest law enforcement agencies remain somewhat skeptical about the program’s future.

A Houston Police Department spokesperson said the agency’s position on cite and release is unchanged from last summer, when officials suggested there are too many situations in which officers cannot issue a citation. Rather than risk improperly citing someone who should be arrested, many officers chose to take people to jail.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez speaks during a voting session at the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council on Thursday in Houston. (Antranik Tavitian / Abdelraoufsinno) Credit: Antranik Tavitian

Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Jason Spencer said his agency remains open to cite and release, but believes deputies are already “using every available tool that’s available to us” under the policy. In recent months, sheriff’s officials urged the council to deprioritize cite and release in favor of other programs they considered more effective.

“If there are more opportunities to handle cases that currently are resulting in people being incarcerated … we’re certainly eager to look at that,” Spencer said Thursday.

Six members of the council voted on how to prioritize goals listed in the plan to reduce crime in Harris County, with a consensus reached that some parts of the cite-and-release revamp should be marked as a “low” priority. The plan’s authors noted that the 11 other council members didn’t respond to the survey.

The rest of the 19-page plan includes many goals aimed at reducing crime, improving collaboration between agencies and cutting disparities between demographic groups, among other targets. The efforts include modernizing data-sharing practices, strengthening the legal support given to low-income defendants and reducing the time needed to process evidence in criminal cases.

“I think together we can make our criminal justice system fair and effective to achieve those goals,” council chair and Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

Eileen Grench covers public safety for the Abdelraoufsinno, where two of her primary areas of focus will be the Houston Police Department and Harris County Sheriff’s Office. She is returning to local...