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Criminal justice activists want Travis County to lower jail population

Criminal justice reform advocates on Friday called on Travis County commissioners to reject a $2.4 million request by the sheriff’s office for 36 more jail officers, and to instead spend that money to stem incarceration rates.

A medley of criminal justice reform activists testified at a public hearing concerning budget measures that the Commissioners Court will vote on Sept. 27.

“(The office’s) request is made during a period where crime in the county continues to decline with (Texas Department of Public Safety) reporting that in 2014 Travis County had the lowest violent crime rate of the six urban counties,” said Jorge Renaud, a representative of Texas Advocates for Justice.

Last week, the Travis County Jail reported it was nearing its capacity of 2,700 inmates as 2,669 individuals — the largest number of people held in the facility in six years — were in detention. About 70 percent, or 2,006, are being held while awaiting trial or some kind of adjudication.

“We do need to make sure people aren’t (in jail) if they don’t have to be,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. “We need to make sure that we’re giving people services that help them get back home.”

Eckhardt and other county leaders joined activists to discuss incarceration and possible solutions at a workshop Wednesday, she said.

She noted that bookings are at a historical low, but capacity remains high because inmates are staying incarcerated longer.

“With our work session yesterday we did get some really good information in regard to changes in protocol in getting the pretrial packet to the courts quicker — so that if someone is not meeting the criteria for bonding out, their defense attorney can grab that packet early and take a look at it and see what’s missing to get them bond-eligible.”

Eckhardt said she feels it’s fitting to organize a meeting about solutions between activists and the Community Justice Council — a coalition of elected officials who focus on public safety.

“Our jails aren’t treatment centers, but when we look at the population of our jails, the vast majority of them have substance abuse issues, mental health issues. These are things that we as citizens of Austin and Travis County need to prioritize our tax dollars on effecting in the community by prevention, by treatment,” said Reggie Smith, Texas Advocates for Justice representative. “This is something that is being overlooked so we’re, by default, utilizing our jails as treatment centers.”

Eckhardt said there will be a continued push to screen for mental health so those in need can be diverted to treatment centers rather than the jail.

Activists also pointed out that African-Americans are disproportionately incarcerated in Travis County. Officials reported that last year, 24 percent of those booked into the jail were black while African-Americans made up only 8.9 percent of the county’s population.

“We can’t forget that these aren’t numbers — they’re family members, fathers, sons, daughters and mothers,” Renaud said.

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