A civil rights group’s study released Thursday says there are dramatic racial disparities in the treatment inmates receive at the Travis County Jail.
According to the Grassroots Leadership’s analysis of 2015 jail booking data, African-Americans stayed in the Travis County Jail nearly twice as long as Caucasian inmates on average — and the disparities held when comparing white and black inmates with the same lead charge and total number of charges.
For instance, African-Americans booked on a charge of driving while intoxicated spent almost 15 days in jail on average; whites were generally released within five days. When it comes to felony drug possession charges, blacks spent an average of 50 days in jail, while whites only spent 31.
Overall, African-American inmates spent nearly 23 days on average in the Travis County Jail, almost double the roughly 14 days for Caucasians.
“Blacks are jailed longer on average when charged with crimes of each and every level and degree — even when the number of charges is the same,” said Chris Harris, the data analyst who authored the report for Grassroots Leadership. “Time spent in local jail often has little to do with guilt or innocence as the vast majority of people held in this building have not been convicted.”
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said in a statement Thursday that Travis County has already been working with Grassroots Leadership to take action on some of their recommendations, like providing alternatives to arrest, speeding up adjudication to reduce the jail population and expanding the capacity of the county’s pretrial diversion programs.
“Travis County welcomes and will continue to seek the aid and assistance of experts to help better understand and respond to the disparities that continue to exist within our criminal justice system,” she said.
The Grassroots Leadership study was released on the second anniversary of Sandra Bland’s death, a high-profile case that shined a spotlight on police and jail practices in the state.
Bland was pulled over in Waller County by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper for failing to signal while switching lanes, but video of the incident showed the traffic stop quickly spun out of control, resulting in a violent arrest. Two days later, she was found dead in her cell at the Waller County Jail. Authorities ruled her death a suicide.
The Legislature passed a bill during its last session that imposed new mental health training standards on jailers in the wake of Bland’s case.
The fractured and decentralized nature of law enforcement in Texas gives jail administrators limited say in addressing many of the factors outlined in the Grassroots Leadership study. For instance, the Austin Police Department is responsible for the bulk of the arrests processed by the jail, magistrate judges determine bail eligibility and set the amount, the district attorney’s office assembles felony cases for indictments, and the county attorney’s office handles misdemeanor charges.
“I don’t think anyone in our agency would challenge the fact there are a whole bunch of social injustices,” said Maj. Wes Priddy, who runs day-to-day operations at the Travis County Jail. “But, the jail doesn’t have any control over arrests, nor does it have any control over legal releases.”
He added: “Our hands are very much tied from the jail’s perspective on what we can do about this.”
The Grassroots Leadership study shows that some 6,000 bookings into the Travis County Jail in 2015 were for Class C misdemeanors, a class of offense for things like traffic tickets and possession of small amounts of marijuana that would typically include no jail time if convicted.
That statistic caught the eye of District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, who is demanding answers from City Manager Elaine Hart.
“It seems like it is not the best use of city resources,” Casar said. “My understanding is that we do believe in cite and release (in Austin) so there’s a serious question about why (these numbers are) being revealed.”
The Austin Police Department wasn’t immediately available to comment.