by SEAN KIMMONS
Last year, the Hays County Sheriff’s Office began a “cite and release” program to free up space in the overcrowded county jail. But in the following 12 months, no one has tracked how many citations have been issued, making it almost impossible to determine if the program has been a success or a failure.
Under the program initiated last May, law enforcement officers are given the option of writing citations for low-level misdemeanor offenses rather than hauling the suspect off to the cramped Hays County Jail, where inmates are frequently shipped to other facilities at a high cost to the county due to lack of space.
Officials, from the sheriff’s department up to the county’s district attorney, were unable to round up figures to gauge the effectiveness of the new cite and release program.
“I don’t think there is a way to track them,” sheriff’s spokesperson Lt. Leroy Opiela said of the time-saving citations. “We haven’t had any evidence to show that the jail is less full than before.”
Officers can issue the “field release citations” for seven crimes, including Misdemeanor Possession of Marijuana, Class B misdemeanor Graffiti, Class B misdemeanor Theft of Service, Driving While License Invalid, Class B misdemeanor Criminal Mischief, Class B misdemeanor Theft and Contraband in a Correctional Facility.
Once cited, the person must appear at the JP Precinct 1 Courtroom on a set court date for magistration and processing. The cite and release program is only open to offenders that are considered low risk and likely to show up for their court date.
Violators must have proof of identification, must be at least 17 years old and must be a Hays County resident to be considered for a field release citation.
A clerk at the JP Precinct 1 office said that they occasionally get a handful of field citations, with the majority being possession of marijuana. However, the citations are not entered into a computer system, tossing out any chance to verify numbers.
Arrest warrants for those who fail to appear on their court date also are not calculated, officials say.
Neighboring Travis County has also enacted a cite and release program, which was approved as a cost-saving measure by the state legislature in 2007.
Unlike their counterparts, Travis County tallies the number of field citations that all of its law enforcement agencies hand out. More than 2,500 field citations were issued in the county from January 2009 to December 2009, county officials say.
In the beginning, Hays County officials had hoped to generate financial savings and keep more patrol officers on the streets instead of transporting offenders to jail.
“A lot of those issued field releases are folks who would be released on bond anyways,” Opiela said.
Opiela said the program’s success depends on if offenders actually appear in court and don’t create more work for officers.
“We don’t know if it’s successful,” Opiela said of the program. “If someone doesn’t show up, it creates a warrant and we have to serve that warrant.”
He added that the program has no signs of stopping and will continue to be in place.
In addition to having inadequate space to house the inmates, the 362-bed Hays County Jail recently failed a series of state inspections and was threatened with closure. The county made a series of repairs to remedy mold in the kitchen, rust and holes in the wall which allowed inmates to swap contraband and is considering a $25 million expansion project.
Sean Kimmons is senior reporter at the Hays Free Press where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Free Press and the Mercury.Email | Print