Harris County criminal justice leaders are considering whether to revive their commitment to “cite and release,” an initiative once hailed by local authorities as a way to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail.

Members of the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which is composed of 16 top criminal justice officials and community experts, discussed several potential steps Thursday for reinvigorating the use of cite and release. Under the program, police officers and deputies can issue a citation to people arrested on certain misdemeanor charges, rather than booking them in jail.

The conversation follows three years of minimal use of the initiative by local law enforcement, who as of June had properly cited 342 people since its inception. The Houston Landing reported in June that thousands of people are eligible for avoiding jail every year, but law enforcement agencies have not embraced the program.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office and Houston Police Department supported using cite and release beginning in 2020, describing it as a win-win for defendants and law enforcement. Those cited would avoid incarceration, while officers would spend less time taking people to Harris County’s overcrowded and sometimes dangerous jail.

But police and prosecutors never fully bought into the initiative for various reasons, including concerns about when it was appropriate to use cite and release.

On Thursday, the coordinating council reviewed a draft plan that called for several steps toward reviving cite and release. They include drafting a formal cite and release policy, re-evaluating eligibility criteria, improving data collection and assessing how other counties approach the initiative.

Supporters of reinvesting in cite and release did not speak about the reasons for backing the initiative during Thursday’s council meeting. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, criminal justice reform advocates and the administrative judge for the Harris County Criminal Courts have supported cite and release in the past.

An officer stands in the back of an empty courtroom used for Harris County’s “cite and release” court at the Harris County District Court. (Houston Landing file photo / Antranik Tavitian)

However, the draft proposal drew criticism from sheriff’s officials and Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who chairs the council.

Harris County Sheriff’s Office Chief of Staff Jason Spencer said other initiatives, such as a program that involves dispatching mental health providers to some 911 calls, have proven more effective than cite and release. Spencer stressed that the agency believes in cite and release, but attention should be directed to programs that would impact most people at the jail.

“From our analysis of the data, cite and release is something I think we all endorse as a philosophy,” Spencer said. “But as a practical matter, it’s been very difficult.”

Ellis echoed Spencer’s view that Harris County leaders should redirect their focus.

“I don’t think anybody’s saying don’t do cite and release, but if we’re going to prioritize it, I think what I’m hearing is there are other things that we ought to prioritize first,” Ellis said.

But one speaker Thursday argued that cite and release could help reduce racial disparities in jail bookings if implemented well. In recent years, Black people eligible for cite and release have been booked into jail, rather than cited, at higher rates than eligible white people.  

The council plans to meet again on Dec. 14 to vote on its final goals for the upcoming year, including whether to double-down on cite and release. Local law enforcement agencies are not required under the council’s bylaws to implement policies and practices designed to meet each goal.

The council’s overall strategic plan includes several other broad goals, such as improving coordination between agencies and carrying out violence prevention initiatives.

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Eileen Grench covers public safety for the Houston Landing, 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...