Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales announced Thursday that his office would no longer prosecute cases when defendants possessed less than an ounce of marijuana and less than a quarter of a gram of other controlled substances like cocaine.
Gonzales said he had already spoken with Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus, and other law enforcement agencies around Bexar County about the new policy. He stressed that this does not change law enforcement’s abilities to arrest people.
“If there’s nothing aggravated about the case, then we’re going to exercise our discretion in declining those cases. … Law enforcement has the discretion to arrest anyone and we in turn will make the decision to accept the case or prosecute,” he said.
McManus said the new policy does not change SAPD’s operations.
“SAPD officers will continue to use discretion and make arrests based on probable cause,” McManus said in a statement Thursday. “After an arrest is made, the DA’s office has the authority to determine how to proceed with the charges.”
Salazar said that he and Gonzales share the same desire to reduce jail population and use limited resources wisely, but deputies will not change how they arrest people based on the district attorney’s new policy.
“They will still be encouraged to exercise sound judgement and to make arrests when appropriate,” Salazar said. “As I have been assured by the DA’s Office, arrest cases will still be handled the same as usual, with a few exceptions on a case by case basis.”
The new policy came with announcements of other criminal justice reform efforts at a press conference Gonzales held Thursday in front of the courthouse. Gonzales said in the first five months of his administration, he has already made strides in criminal justice reform by staffing more prosecutors in the family violence unit and asking his prosecutors to recommend more personal recognizance bonds, where low-level offenders sign an agreement to return to court but do not have to post bail.
Gonzales said his office has expanded the use of its pretrial diversion program, which keeps low-level offenders out of jail. He said he also hoped to finalize a cite-and-release policy by midsummer. SAPD and the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office have been operating their own cite-and-release pilot programs, where low-level, nonviolent offenders are ticketed instead of arrested.
Laquita Garcia, the statewide criminal justice coordinator for the Texas Organizing Project, joined Gonzales at his Thursday press conference. She said his new policies are a “huge step” for criminal justice reform.
“We’ve been closely monitoring Joe Gonzales’ progress as DA because we endorsed him,” she said. “From the beginning, he promised to uphold campaign promises around bail reform and being smarter on crime. We feel that he is living up to his promises.”
Gonzales also announced Thursday the formation of an anti-gang initiative within his office to identify gang members around the county. Two prosecutors in his office are dedicated to that task force, he said.
“We have already identified a number of street gangs plaguing … the community, particularly the East Side,” he said. “We are monitoring them and seeing whether or not we can increase their potential punishment under the organized crime statute. We will use whatever law enforcement tool is available to us so we can try and keep these gang members from plaguing any side of our community.”
Gonzales said his office would look at people arrested during his administration to see if they qualify for any of his new policies. If their cases have already been resolved – meaning they have been tried and sentenced – the DA’s office cannot re-evaluate those cases, Gonzales said.
Gonzales hopes to help keep the Bexar County Jail population down with his new policies. The jail currently has just 3,929 inmates; it holds a maximum of 5,075.
“These reforms will help us prosecute the most serious crimes while keeping our jail free of people who ought not to be there,” he said. “The jail is for people who are … truly violent, not people who are nonviolent, not people who are languishing, awaiting their day in court.”
Mayor Ron Nirenberg praised Gonzales for his criminal justice reform efforts. Nirenberg said he has asked Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) to bring a resolution in support of a cite-and-release policy forward at the next public safety committee meeting and that he looks forward to its passage by the full City Council later this month.
“Keeping low-level non-violent offenders out of jail is the right thing to do; it helps people maintain their jobs, saves taxpayer dollars and enables officers to stay on the streets serving our community,” Nirenberg said in a statement.