Last week, Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) filed a council consideration request for city staff to draft a cite-and-release program related to marijuana possession. The proposed program would cover some misdemeanor marijuana cases, but what San Antonio needs is a comprehensive cite-and-release ordinance that includes all citation-eligible offenses.

Texas state law has allowed for law enforcement agencies to issue citations or tickets instead of making arrests for certain low-level offenses for more than 13 years. Yet many police departments have continued to reinforce an arrest culture that has destabilized communities and torn families apart. Anyone with a criminal record faces job loss and multiple barriers to finding housing or other human services, harms that are ultimately long-lasting. 

Passing a cite-and-release ordinance would dramatically reduce arrests for citation-eligible offenses by making citations the default action for police officers, rather than a choice. Today, under the San Antonio Police Department’s administrative policy officers determine who gets a citation or is arrested for offenses such as marijuana possession, theft, or driving with an invalid license. A permanent ordinance would establish guidelines for officers to favor citations unless limited circumstances are present. It would also save the city and county money by avoiding booking and jail costs. 

In 2019, Austin passed a cite and release policy under its Freedom Cities Resolutions. The city saw an immediate 20% decrease in discretionary arrests in the first three months and a 57% decrease from 2018 levels. Equitable and robust data collection can also be achieved through an ordinance, which would allow for real transparency and oversight of policing practices. We have seen data improvements and more accountability with police departments in San Marcos and Austin after they passed their own policies. 

Cite-and-release saved Bexar County $2.6 million in booking costs alone in less than two years. An ordinance would guarantee an increased citation rate, accelerating these savings and allowing funding to be redirected to other pressing needs such as public health and housing, services that are a dire need in a prolonged pandemic and eviction crisis.

Citation-eligible offenses are committed every day by regular citizens, such as driving with an invalid license or smoking a marijuana joint at a college party. For our immigrant community, this action could result in loss of scholarships or even deportation and being permanently separated from their loved ones. Our immigrant neighbors deserve better.

Most importantly, a cite-and-release ordinance would help people and communities in crisis as a result of mass incarceration. Data shows, people of color are arrested at disproportionate rates in San Antonio. Black people represent 7% of the population, yet were arrested at twice that rate in 2020. For far too long we’ve seen Black and brown people’s lives being decided by the law enforcement officer who interacted with them regarding a citation-eligible offense. In a matter of seconds, depending on the discretion of the officer, a person could be marked for a minor offense for the rest of their lives and punished in jail.

We needed a solution that can deal with the offense while teaching a better way. Alternative justice has proved to be very effective in countries like Canada and studies show that when people are given an opportunity instead of jail time, that is embraced. When a person is given a citation instead of being arrested and caged, the person is instead given an opportunity to experience alternative forms of justice like a training course or community service. A person is actually being given the educational and coping tools to go forward in life and make better decisions. 

We need our community to demand that City Council support a comprehensive cite-and-release ordinance. The policy proposed by Councilman Pelaez is not enough. San Antonio communities deserve more.

Carolina Canizales

Carolina Canizales has worked in immigrant justice for 12 years. In her role at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, she builds organizing and advocacy capacity to fight back the criminalization, incarceration...

Debra Ponce

Debra Ponce is a second-generation American who was born and raised in San Antonio. She has been organizing for justice in underserved communities for the last 10-plus years. Currently, she is an organizer...