San Marcos Stopped Arrests For Minor Crimes. Now There's A Call To Expand The Practice Countywide.
Deana Piñales works as a postpartum doula when she’s not teaching children at the San Marcos Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Church. She jokingly calls herself a “jane-of-all-trades,” because of her varying interests, and says she tries to stay involved in the community as much as possible through her 9-year-old son.
More than a decade ago, though, the San Marcos native was arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana. She still remembers the night she spent in jail as a teenager.
“You go to really dark places and you just start examining everything in a negative light,” Piñales said. “And it just really takes a toll on your psyche. Even if you're there for a short amount of time. It's not something anyone should experience for a low-level offense at all.”
Piñales says she has put the experience behind her – mentally. But having an arrest on her record has made it difficult for her to get a full-time job or further her education.
"If anything were to happen to me and I needed a safety net - there's no net there because the net doesn't want me, because I have this thing on my record."
“Whenever you're going through that interview process, there's that little box that says, 'Have you been arrested?' And you check that," she said. "There's instantly a stigma attached to that."
Though Piñales has found ways to make the best of her situation, she still doesn’t have the kinds of stability afforded by a full-time job, like health insurance or a retirement plan.
“There's nothing backing me right now,” she said. “If anything were to happen to me and I needed a safety net – there's no net there because the net doesn't want me, because I have this thing on my record.”
Piñales never would have been arrested today. Instead, she would have been issued a citation, thanks to San Marcos' month-old cite-and-release law. The law aims to keep people out of jail for minor offenses; criminal justice advocates say it alleviates the over-criminalization of Black and Hispanic residents in Hays County.
The law requires officers to issue citations, instead of making arrests, for low-level offenses like the one Piñales committed. Officers in cities across the state have had the option to use cite and release for the past decade – nearby cities like San Antonio and Austin have similar programs, for example. But San Marcos became the first city in Texas to mandate this practice. It eliminates the option to arrest almost entirely, except for specific situations like if a person could harm themselves or has an outstanding warrant.
“I'm thinking of other people that could be in the situations like I was at the same age that I was," Piñales said. “And just how they're going to be given a second chance.”
Renewed Calls For Reform
Just days after the cite-and-release law went into effect, the nation erupted in protests over police brutalityand systemic racism within law enforcement. Residents in Hays County led protests in the county seat and in the cities along I-35. In the small town of Wimberley, two teenagers organized a peaceful protest with more than 200 people.
Nationwide, the protests have led many local governments to take a closer look at criminal justice reforms within their jurisdictions.
Mano Amiga, a local grassroots criminal justice reform group, approached the San Marcos City Council with the idea for a cite-and-release law last year, after finding local police made arrests instead of issuing citations every time there was a case involving a Black person in 2018. The ordinance passed in April.
“San Marcos is not Minneapolis; it's not Atlanta. It's not many of the cities where we've seen these extreme actions occur,” City Council Member Mark Rockeymoore said in an interview. “But of course, it is a city with law enforcement and there are discrepancies in how cite and release was deployed during the years when it was an option for the police officers here in San Marcos.”
He and many other local officials say their work has only just begun.
“[Cite and release] was just the beginning of the process,” Rockeymoore, who chairs the city’s criminal justice committee, said. “We figured that this was a good baseline to begin.”
A Push For Cite And Divert
Now, San Marcos is calling on the county to take the law a step further with another program called "cite and divert."
Similar to cite and release, cite and divert makes it easier for people charged with low-level offenses to avoid jail time or a permanent record. While cite and release allows people to avert immediate arrest for a minor offense, they still must show up at the county jail, get booked and meet with a judge. That means people who are cited could wind up with a misdemeanor on their record.
Under a cite-and-divert program, people who receive citations wouldn’t have to be booked at the jail at all; instead, they could meet with a prosecutor to see if they’re eligible to take an educational course or complete community service.
While cities can pass cite-and-release laws because they involve local law enforcement, the county has to give the OK for a cite-and-divert program because it involves the district attorney’s office. At a special meeting in June, San Marcos City Council members unanimously passed a resolution urging the county to implement a program.
"The City Council supports the proposed Cite and Divert Program and encourages the Hays County Criminal District Attorney’s Office to establish and implement the program as soon as possible," the resolution reads.
The Hays County Criminal District Attorney’s Office and other county officials have expressed general support for both programs since last year, but have yet to make any major moves.
Commissioners on the Criminal Justice Coordinating Commission tabled talks on the program in October, after its Cite and Release subcommittee asked to “slow the process down,” according to meeting minutes.
At the time, the subcommittee was unable to address concerns about operational procedures for the program – like what would happen if a person failed to complete community service or missed an initial meeting with a prosecutor.
The commission didn’t meet again until May. Members are largely still trying to answer the same questions – and now looking at other diversion programs for answers. In nearby Bexar County, participants are sent reminders through robocalls and text messages.
County Commissioner Lon Shell, who chairs Hays' criminal justice committee, supports diversion programs, but said change doesn’t happen overnight.
“I think we have the desire to do it,” he said. “But we do need to solve those problems. And for the most part, those problems need to be handled with communication between the courts, the district attorney's office and the defense bar, to make sure that we have a system in place that accomplishes what we want to do.”
Shell said it’s important that the district attorney’s office is on board with a cite-and-divert program because it decides how someone is charged.
The next criminal justice meeting will be held virtually on July 22.
Mano Amiga recently called on the City of Kyle to make more regular use of cite and release.
“Kyle & San Marcos together comprise the bulk of the Hays County population,” the organization said in a press release. “Yet their policies on Cite & Release couldn't be more starkly different: the landmark ordinance in San Marcos makes citations the default instead of arrests for petty offenses, whereas we are unaware of Kyle having ever made use of Cite & Release in recent years, at all.”
Data compiled by the county found that Hispanic people accounted for 56% of Kyle’s citation-eligible arrests, and Black people accounted for 10.4%. Hispanic people make up 45% of the population and Black people make up 5.7%.
And while protests in major cities across Central Texas have largely died down, Rockeymoore said there’s a false idea that things can ever go back to normal.
“I think that we have a lot of work to do here in Hays County and that our county commissioners need to go ahead and jump back into the fray and make these shifts,” he said.
Piñales says more funding needs to go toward social workers and health care instead of locking people up – “things that can heal everybody.”
“I know from just my experiences 10-plus years ago and how they have followed me – I know how important it is to change things for the future generations and for everybody else that's in the community and trying to thrive,” she said.
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