Reforms undertaken to make crime fighting more just, efficient
As your district attorney, I am honored that you have given me the responsibility of protecting our community. Making sure our system is safe and just for all is my top priority. I said this on the campaign trail and I continue to believe it as we complete our fifth month in office. Consistent with these goals, I have announced criminal justice reforms on a wide-range of issues — small amounts of drugs, pretrial diversion, bail, criminal trespass, and cite and release.
These reforms will help us focus our resources on prosecuting the most serious cases, while keeping our jail free of people who don’t need to be there. In a place where our jail is regularly at dangerous capacity, we need to rethink safety.
When I took office, we quickly realized that the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office was devoting more staff and time toward marijuana cases than family violence cases. That makes no sense. The risk of a delayed family violence case can be serious for the people involved, and victims in these cases deserve a prosecutor who can spend time learning about their case, gathering evidence, and ensuring justice is done.
To that end, we transferred thirteen prosecutors from prosecuting non-violent cases like criminal trespass and marijuana to the prosecution of felony family violence cases. To facilitate that transfer, I announced yesterday that our new marijuana policy presumes that we will not prosecute possession of less than an ounce of marijuana or less than a quarter gram of narcotics. More prosecutors on family violence cases means that these cases will get the attention they deserve. Spending our resources arresting, prosecuting, and then testing small amounts of drugs—often so small that retesting is impossible — is not responsible when there are sexual assaults and violent crimes that need our attention.
Of course, as in all cases, this is a rebuttable presumption and prosecutors have discretion to deviate where there are extenuating circumstances. This principle holds true for all the policies I have announced. None of these policies prevent an officer from making an arrest.
Our community is also safer when we address root causes of crimes and keep people free of criminal records where possible. To that end, we have radically changed our pretrial diversion program, which is intended to ‘divert’ people away from the criminal justice system and avoid a criminal record if they complete the program. Previously, this program has been under-utilized due to unnecessary barriers to admission. We removed barriers such as application fees and gave prosecutors discretion to offer the program to appropriate people. In the first 100 days of my administration, we have admitted 1,109 people into the program, compared with 259 in the first 100 days of 2018. Allowing people to return to their communities better than when they started is what keeps us safe — and allows Bexar County to thrive.
Taxpayers should not be spending millions of dollars just to keep a person in jail because they can’t afford to buy their freedom. It is not right. I told you when I ran that bail reform would be a priority if elected — and I’ve kept my promise to you in taking this first step. Our prosecutors will be asking judges to release people who are charged with misdemeanors and state jail felonies unless they have reason to believe the person is a danger to the community or an actual flight risk. Other jurisdictions that have taken on similar reforms have not seen a rise in crime nor have they seen a higher rate of people failing to come to court. If someone is held in jail while their case is pending, it should be because that person is a risk to the community and not because they are too poor to post bond.
It is my hope that some people accused of non-violent crimes won’t ever have to languish in a jail cell before a judge decides their incarceration is unnecessary. Even 24 hours in custody can have consequences that persist long after release and derail lives. Research shows that 24 hours in jail can increase the risk of a person committing a new crime, along with the collateral damage — being fired for not showing up to work or children left without a caregiver. The new cite and release program is designed to avoid that 24 hours, or more, of incarceration. This program also saves tax payer dollars by keeping more police officers on the street and reducing our jail population.
I appreciate the opportunity that you have given me to be your District Attorney. I look forward to serving you and to continue rolling up our sleeves to ensure that Bexar County is safe and fair for all.
Joe Gonzales is Bexar County’s District Attorney.