By Carolina Canizales, Senior Texas Campaign Strategist & Anita Gupta, Staff Attorney, Immigrant Legal Resource Center
Sometimes advocates like ourselves working in the immigrant rights and criminal (in)justice space disagree over whether we think a policy or law benefits the communities we serve. That is good; it means we are thinking critically about what impactful policy is. That discussion is happening right now over cite and release policies in Texas.
Texas state law has allowed for law enforcement agencies to issue citations or tickets instead of making arrests for certain low-level offenses for more than 13 years! However, this practice has been severely underutilized throughout our state. So when San Marcos became the first Texas city to adopt a cite and release ordinance we were thrilled, and not just because the ILRC contributed so much to the campaign to pass the ordinance. We were thrilled because it is another step towards decriminalizing Black people, communities of color, and immigrants. The ordinance means that instead of being arrested for low-level crimes like possession of marijuana or misdemeanor theft, police would be required to cite or ticket you, and, most importantly, release you. Police could also just give a warning instead of taking any punitive action, which would be the ideal.
Cite and release is intended to mitigate racial profiling in policing and avoid the harmful effects of an arrest, such as deportation, losing your job, and barriers to finding employment and housing. Arrests and incarceration, no matter the length, tear apart families and destabilize our communities.
Being arrested will give a person a criminal record that can cause long-term harm. And in a time of a global pandemic, it can mean the difference between life or death. COVID-19 is rapidly spreading in jails. Cite and release means no immediate incarceration.
But other advocates say cite and release doesn’t go far enough in defunding the police. They are right; it doesn’t. But it IS a first step in doing this.
Cite and release means a person is not arrested. Being arrested and booked into jail costs taxpayer money that could be put toward real community needs, like housing, health care, mental health services, and other social services. It means saving money that can be divested from law enforcement and re-invested in our community.
A cite and release ordinance is one tool for our communities to fight back against systems of policing, criminalization and incarceration. The ordinance makes a citation, ticket or warning the default action for police officers. It takes away their choice of “should I arrest this person or just give them a citation?”, a choice which almost always disproportionately harms Black and Brown communities due to racial bias. It begins to shift power dynamics.
While San Marcos’ cite and release ordinance is still too new to assess its impact, we know from neighboring Austin that cite and release policies have had a huge effect in reducing arrests for low level offenses. In fact, arrests for citation-eligible offenses in the city have decreased by more than 60 percent since Austin’s cite and release resolution was passed in 2018. Racial disparities persist, but this is a step toward decriminalization.
Hays County officials are set to implement a cite and release diversion program this fall, similar to the program that Bexar County started last year. This would be another step towards decriminalization. Currently, if a person is cited, they still must appear in court to address the charge(s). That means that there could be a lofty fine to pay, or even jail time. A complementary diversion program would allow for individuals to complete certain requirements, such as a class and/or community service, in lieu of having any charges filed against them in court. This would mean their record remains clear of any arrest or charges.
So to our fellow advocates fighting for justice and equity every day, we may have different ideas of how to approach the fight to defund law enforcement, and we embrace the diversity of tactics in our movement. We believe that cite and release is a needed and attainable first step. It’s one tool in our toolbox. So let’s use it, let’s reduce police officers’ ability to arrest, let’s keep thousands of people out of jail, and let’s use it as a building step as we can continue to push for what our communities really need to thrive.