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Thousands unnecessarily arrested for minor offenses in Texas, a new report finds

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Thousands of people across Texas were arrested in 2019 for offenses that could have been handled with a citation instead, according to a recent report.

The report, released by the nonprofit Texas Appleseed in December, looked at arrests made that year in eight Texas jurisdictions, including five in North Texas. Researchers found more than 15,000 people across the state arrested for potentially citation-eligible minor offenses.

"When we say unnecessarily, it means that technically by law, they could have been issued a citation and a summons to appear in court to deal with their charge at a later date, rather than physically placing them in a carceral institution for detention," said Jennifer Carreon, director of Texas Appleseed's Criminal Justice Project.

The bulk of arrests were for Class C misdemeanors, which include public intoxication or disorderly conduct, as well as other offenses which include low-level theft, possession of marijuana and driving with an invalid license. The data doesn't count people arrested on multiple higher-level charges and warrants on top of the Class C offense.

Few Class C misdemeanors mandate jail time under state law, but officers have broad discretion to make arrests and do not have to explain why they arrest someone for a citation-eligible offense. A bill that would have changed that failed to pass in the 2019 Legislature.

The report recommends an end to warrantless arrests for Class C misdemeanors with limited exceptions, and the creation and implementation of a statewide cite-and-release policy that all jurisdictions can adopt.

"The data shows us that [with] the justice system that is currently burdening our jails that are busting at the seams, there are ways to help that to alleviate the system to help our communities and to make everybody feel safer by making sure that resources and time are being allocated efficiently," Carreon said.

The report found stark differences across regions. In Austin, which had cite-and-release policies on the books in 2019, just 4% of all arrests were potentially eligible for a citation, according to the data.

In contrast, the report found Dallas and Fort Worth saw more than 20% of arrests that could have been handled with a citation. Dallas and Tarrant counties did not have official cite-and-release policies on the books at the time, though they have since been enacted, suggesting such reforms could be successful in diverting people from jail.

A spokesperson for the the Dallas Police Department said the department could not comment, because it did not have enough information based on the report's findings. The Fort Worth Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The report also found racial disparities in arrests for possession of marijuana and driving with an invalid license. While Black people make up about 21% of the population in the eight jurisdictions, they made up nearly 39% of citation-eligible arrests.

Carreon said the high number of citation-eligible arrests have profound impacts on communities, increasing people's likelihood of being arrested again as well as wasting taxpayer money and law enforcement resources to book and arraign the arrestees.

"Every shortcoming, every unintended consequence, every collateral damage that is existing or associated with the use of citation-eligible arrests is disproportionately impacting communities of color," Carreon said.

Got a tip? Email Pablo Arauz Peña at parauzpena@kera.org

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Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Pablo Arauz Peña