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Texas Counties Waste Millions by Jailing Defendants Charged with Citation-Eligible Misdemeanors

by Matt Clarke

In April 2019, social justice advocacy nonprofit Texas Appleseed released an analysis of jail bookings in a dozen of the most populous counties throughout Texas. The study examined the most serious charge that people faced when booked into jail, to determine the percentage of misdemeanor bookings. In all but one county, there were overwhelmingly more misdemeanor bookings than felony bookings. Further, thousands of people were jailed on fine-only charges eligible for citations – that is, ticketing offenses.

Texas has three classes of misdemeanors. Class A carries up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. Class B charges have a maximum of 180 days in jail and a fine of $2,000. Class C is fine-only, with a maximum of $500. All Class C misdemeanors, some Class B – such as possession of marijuana and petty theft – and a few Class A are subject to citations. That means booking into a jail is not required, but at the arresting officer’s discretion.

“Jail stays, even short ones, can cause sustained damage to people’s lives,” according to the analysis. “When people are booked into jail they may lose their employment, damaging their families’ economic stability. They may also lose their housing or even custody of their children. Services that they may be receiving for mental health treatment or addiction are interrupted. Their physical health may suffer as well, given the extraordinarily stressful environment and lack of access to regular medications. In short, jail does far more harm than good for people who are not dangerous.”

This is a strong argument for not jailing people for offenses subject to citations.

One study found that low-risk criminal defendants in Kentucky held at least two to three days in jail were nearly 40 percent more likely to commit a new crime before trial compared to those held less than 24 hours. The longer they were held, the more likely they were to commit a new crime – 74 percent more likely for those held over a month compared to those held less than a day. Thus, as a matter of public safety, counties should strive to avoid jail bookings when possible and shorten jail stays as much as possible.

At 69 percent, Travis and Galveston counties had the highest percentage of misdemeanor bookings, while Dallas County had the fewest at 42 percent. However, the Dallas City Marshal operates a detention facility for Class C misdemeanors, and people detained at that facility were not taken into account in the analysis by Texas Appleseed.

In Travis County, 35 percent of the bookings were for black arrestees even though black residents comprise around nine percent of the county’s population.

The most common misdemeanor charges were driving while intoxicated and possession of marijuana, either of which can be Class A or B. Each accounted for seven percent of all jail bookings. Misdemeanor theft accounted for another four percent, while assault/family violence and traffic violations were three percent each.

Eleven of the counties accounted for over 30,000 misdemeanor arrests in 2017 alone. Around a third were for Class A offenses, 42 percent for Class B and 19 percent for Class C. During a single year in those counties, more than 24,000 people booked for a Class B or C misdemeanor spent more than three days in jail. Over half were held over 10 days.

The aggregate number of days that misdemeanor defendants spent in jail in ten of the counties was 858,959. That came at an estimated cost of $51 million, using the Texas Association of Counties’ 2016 conservative jail cost estimate of $60 per day.

The analysis recommended that Texas counties stop booking people charged with Class C misdemeanors and other offenses eligible for citations, quickly release most arrestees on personal bonds after they are booked, implement diversion programs, and analyze local data to optimize jail use. State Rep. Senfronia Thompson introduced a bill, HB 482, that would prohibit law enforcement officers from arresting people charged with Class C misdemeanors absent a warrant. The bill was left pending in committee in April 2019. 



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