Five months after activists held up a Travis County Commissioners Court vote on initial funding of a new women’s jail facility as they pushed instead for more diversion programs, identical funding reappeared in a preliminary budget that staffers presented at a budget hearing Thursday.
Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez has said the facility within the Del Valle jail is needed because the county’s current facilities are in poor physical shape. The setup splits the female population into four facilities, she said, which is inefficient and at times uncomfortable for the women who have to walk through men’s facilities.
But community criminal justice reform advocates said there was more the county could do to keep people out of jail before resorting to an expansion, such as increasing mental health, substance abuse and other support services.
In March, at the activists’ urging, the Commissioners Court postponed a decision whether to spend $6.6 million to design the facility, giving staffers time to evaluate diversion programs and study ways to reduce the jail population.
The funding for the design, which would be paid for with nonvoter-approved bonds, is part of a larger $616 million master plan recommended by consultants in 2015.
The facility would include classrooms for “gender-specific programming” and a satellite clinic for addressing women’s health issues, reducing the need for correctional officers to escort women to other buildings and off-campus, according to a 2018 update to the plan.
Last month, the county’s Justice Planning Department and community advocates presented to commissioners an asset map they created that lays out existing diversion programs and available data on outcomes.
Staffers highlighted programs such as the batterer’s intervention and prevention program, an intervention for defendants with domestic violence charges. About 8 percent of participants between 2014 and 2016 were rearrested within a year of the program compared with 22 percent of those who didn’t participate.
They also pointed to some of the county’s new programs, including the driving without a valid license program, which reduces a misdemeanor charge if a person gets his license, and a possession of marijuana class for people arrested for less than 2 ounces of marijuana in exchange for no charge being filed.
The city of Austin, the report also noted, in June passed “Freedom City” resolutions that call for police to work to end most discretionary arrests for nonviolent misdemeanors, which happen when an officer chooses to arrest someone for an offense that could have been resolved with a ticket, in an effort to reduce racial disparities.
“The need for a new women’s facility has not gone away,” said Allison Fink, planning project manager, in an interview. “The asset map showed that not for every single program do we have measures that tell us how well it’s working, so that could be a next step coming out of this.”
Since Thursday’s hearing was not a voting session, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt did not allow commissioners to ask questions or respond directly to testimony. But the item likely will come up again in upcoming voting sessions.
Diana Claitor, a member of the sheriff’s office’s advisory committee on the women’s facility, said Thursday that while she agrees that it’s important that the county work to improve its diversion effort, the new building is needed to better serve female inmates.
“This new women’s jail will be designed with women specifically in mind, it will be trauma-informed, safe, healthy, rehabilitative and respectful,” said Claitor, who is also director of the Texas Jail Project, a group that works to improve the condition of Texas’ county jails. “We fully expect that a re-envisioned jail … will result in much better outcomes for the women and for the whole community.”
Cate Graziani, criminal justice campaigns coordinator at nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, said in an interview that she was disappointed that the facility was back on the table but was encouraged by the progress made in the past five months.
“One reason why we sounded the alarm bells last year was because we didn’t feel like the county had done a good enough job of having community input on that master plan on the women’s facility before moving ahead with it, and … to their credit, (they) are doing a better job of speaking with advocates,” Graziani said.
A six-page proposal sent to commissioners Thursday morning by Grassroots Leadership — as well as the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, the Texas Overdose Naloxone Initiative and the Austin Harm Reduction Coalition — proposed a pre-arrest diversion program for people with substance abuse disorders.
Such a program would give substance users suspected of drug offenses the option to participate in a supportive services and case management program rather than face jail and prosecution.
The proposal cited the example of a pre-arrest diversion program in Seattle, which gives controlled substance users suspected of drug and prostitution offenses the option to participate in a supportive services and case management program rather than facing jail and prosecution.
A 2017 study of that program found that participants were 58 percent less likely to be arrested after enrollment compared with those who went through the typical criminal justice process.
The proposal also urged commissioners to help fund a 24-hour walk-in clinic for opioid users that the Texas Overdose Naloxone Initiative and the Austin Harm Reduction Coalition is opening this fall. The project is being paid for with federal money from the Texas Targeted Opioid Response initiative.
The groups’ members encouraged commissioners to contribute funding so that the facility might be able to extend services for other types of substance abuse.
Graziani said the number of drug possession cases filed in Travis County has increased 90 percent since 2012. Such arrests are costly, inefficient and can lead to higher rates of recidivism, Graziani said.
“If we could reduce those jail bed days and those bookings even by a fraction, we could really reinvest dollars into the pre-arrest diversion program,” she said.
Commissioners weigh preliminary budget
Travis County staffers have presented to commissioners the preliminary version of the $1.07 billion budget, up about $33 million from last year.
The proposed tax rate of 35.27 cents per $100 of taxable value is lower than last year’s rate of 36.9 cents. However, it’s higher than the 34.12-cent tax rate that the county would need to charge to raise the same amount of money as this past year, after accounting for rising property values.
That means for the owner of the average $326,894 home, the proposed 2019 rate would translate into a tax bill of about $1,152.96, up from $1,126.09 last year.
The proposed budget includes a general fund of $782 million, up about 4 percent from last year’s $749 million. Some of the biggest drivers of the increase include $1.2 million for costs related to mitigating the former faulty DNA lab’s issues; more than $600,000 for law enforcement expenses, including new hires; and about $600,000 for the Transportation and Natural Resources Department, also mainly for new hires.
Commissioners will give final approval to the budget and tax rate Sept. 25.