SAN MARCOS (KXAN) — All law enforcement agencies in Hays County have agreed to implement a new program that will give police officers the option of issuing a citation instead of jail time and criminal charges for certain offenses.

The Hays County Sheriff’s Office posted the announcement on its Facebook page Wednesday, and said the timing is due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising number of positive cases KXAN has reported on behind bars in the Hays County Jail.

According to the sheriff’s office, Sheriff Gary Cutler and Hays County District Attorney Wes Mau met Wednesday morning with the local law enforcement leaders from San Marcos, Kyle, Buda, and Texas State University police departments, and they all agreed to be part of the new “Cite and Divert” program.

It’s different than “cite and release” which allows someone to avoid going to jail, but still comes with a criminal charge. Divert means there is no arrest, no jail time and no criminal charge on someone’s record if they follow the plan.

“The major benefit to the Cite and Divert Program is that it provides an opportunity to stay out of the criminal justice system and keep the criminal record clean,” the sheriff’s office statement said. “Rather than going to jail and having a case filed, a person will meet with a prosecutor from the Criminal District Attorney’s Office who may recommend an appropriate course of diversion.”

The program will give law enforcement officers an additional option when they think a warning is not enough, but jail time is too harsh. The sheriff’s office said cite and divert was discussed about a year ago with no action, but with the current COVID-19 outbreak among jail inmates and staff, it was decided by law enforcement administrators that it would be best to move forward with it now. The anticipated launch date is Sept.1.

“Diversion is a good policy when there is a pandemic and when there is not a pandemic, and we’re seeing clearly as a fatal virus sweeps through our jail that it’s more important than ever to keep people out,” said Jordan Buckley.

Buckley is part of Mano Amiga, an immigration advocacy group that’s been pushing for the jail diversion program for nearly two years.

“We’re delighted that they finally followed through on what they said that they would do last year,” said Buckley. “And we were discouraged by a seven month absence from when the cite and divert committee had last met.”

County commissioners’ court chief of staff Alex Villalobos is on the committee and said he has been a big supporter of the program, but some law enforcement agencies were skeptical at first.

“I think the hesitancy was understanding and having a clear idea of how this works and how it’s going to affect them,” said Villalobos, who is also a Kyle city council member and running for Hays County sheriff.

District Attorney Wes Mau tells KXAN the sheriff has been the one pushing to expedite the process so fewer people will be cycling in and out of the jail during the COVID-19 crisis. While that could help the county slow the spread of the virus, Mau does not think the program will do much to lower the overall jail population.

“It will have some impact on the number of people going through the booking procedures, but most of the individuals who would be charged with offenses that will be eligible for city and release, or this new diversion program, would be people who I would expect to be released within 24 hours of arrest anyways,” said Mau. “So these are not the folks that are taking up space in the jail more than overnight.”

Mau said he and district judges have been taking action, and continue to take action to issue low or personal recognizance bonds for inmates facing lesser charges in an effort to keep the jail population as low as possible. He said the majority of inmates in the Hays County jail right now are charged with felony crimes of a violent or sexual nature.

Current jail COVID-19 cases

An additional 20 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 over the last week. As of Wednesday, the sheriff’s office said out of 196 COVID-19 tests given to inmates, 60 have now come back positive, with 44 cases still active. Lab results are still pending for 68 tests.

Out of the 119 corrections staff tested, 16 of them have tested positive with 9 tests still pending.

What types of cases can be diverted?

Low-level misdemeanor cases will be eligible for diversion. Some of these misdemeanor offenses that would be part of this program include: marijuana possession, misdemeanor theft, driving with an invalid license, and criminal mischief. This list is not inclusive and other misdemeanors could fall under this program, according to the sheriff’s office.