Two months past its deadline, activists call for cite and divert program in Hays County

Hays

SAN MARCOS, Texas (KXAN) — The Hays County cite and divert program is now two months past its original launch date.

Sheriff Gary Cutler sent out a press release in July, saying all law enforcement agencies in the county had agreed to implement the new program on Sept. 1.

The program would give police officers the option of issuing a citation instead of jail time and criminal charges for certain offenses.

The group gathered outside the Hays County pretrial services office, which soon will hire a bond officer. (KXAN Photo/Tahera Rahman)

A handful of people, organized by activist group Mano Amiga, gathered at the Hays County Government Center on Sunday to call on leaders to finally take action on the program.

“Well over a year have they been talking about it– all without any action,” Samantha Benavides said into a megaphone.

Pushing for a cite and divert program hits close to home for her.

“My dad has been in and out of jail for pretty much my whole life,” says Benavides, who says not all of her fathers crimes would have been eligible for cite and release.

She was glad when the county sheriff sent out an email identifying the program’s launch date.

“Today, it is November 1st and we still see no sign of this program put into practice,” Benavides said on Sunday.

Cite and divert would allow offenders to meet with the district attorney’s office to repay the crime in another way, keeping their record clean.

“Diversion can include educational courses, community service or paying restitution, all of which are less expensive and less time consuming than going through the more formalized judicial process,” indicated Sheriff Cutler’s July announcement.

Mano Amiga says delaying the program not only means more people behind bars, but more people exposed to COVID-19 within the Hays County Jail.

“We continue to send our community members to these COVID-infested cages over petty offenses,” Benavides said.

In July, officials said COVID-19 concerns were a big part of pushing for a September launch.

But in a statement to KXAN Sunday, district attorney Wes Mau said his office doesn’t have enough resources.

He says he’s also trying to address concerns other agencies have about the program, saying he is “still committed to working toward cite and divert.”

I am still committed to working toward cite and divert, and other initiatives that I and the local law enforcement and judicial system professionals believe to be important to the future of Hays County.  I intend to do so responsibly, however, and not unilaterally.  When objections were raised to my original proposal, I listened and am in the process of working with other agency partners to try to address those concerns… I am continuing to work towards implementation of a program that will be effective and meaningful, but I will not force an unworkable program into being when the resources to make it work are unavailable, or when pushing it forwards without regard for the issues raised might subject the County to lost funding or expensive lawsuits or shirk my responsibility to see justice done, even if that means I cannot do so on my original timeline.

Wes Mau, Hays County District Attorney

On October 20th, Hays County commissioners approved the hiring of a third pre-trial bond officer for their adult probation department.

The deputy director of the Hays County probation department said her officers had 175 cases in December 2019. By February 2020, that number increased to 198 and 334 in March.

In September, that jumped to 870 pretrial defendants being supervised by the department.

Activists say, had that money been used to launch the cite and divert program, many of those defendants in adult probation could have avoided the legal system altogether.

Mau says that department depends on state funds which would be at risk if used for cite and divert.

“We currently have an adult probation department that is dependent on state funds tied to a requirement that they act under the direct supervision of judges. They risk their funding if they utilize those funds outside their mandate, which a program that avoids judicial involvement would ask them to do,” Mau wrote to KXAN.

Benavides says while they wait for leaders to act, she imagines people like her dad waiting behind bars. “It’s frightening,” she said. “I don’t think he would make it if he got this virus.”

The latest COVID-19 report published by the Hays County Sheriff’s office was on Wednesday.

It shows that so far, 137 inmates have tested positive for the virus, along with 39 corrections staff. Two of those cases are still active.

Currently, they say three inmates with active cases are being housed at the Hays County Jail.

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