Travis County commissioners voted Tuesday to hold off on funding the first piece of a controversial $97 million women’s jail expansion for a year while they consider how to improve diversion programs, a victory for criminal justice reform advocates.
The vote was 3-1 to postpone the funding decision, with Commissioner Margaret Gómez off the dais and Commissioner Gerald Daugherty voting no in a surprise departure from his earlier comments.
Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez had said the creation of a separate women’s facility in the Del Valle jail complex was necessary because of a growing female inmate population. Hernandez said that facilities are in poor physical shape and the setup splits the female population into four facilities.
That makes it more difficult to supply them with services and at times puts them in uncomfortable and risky situations having to walk through male inmate units to get to programs, she said. She said it also requires additional corrections staff to escort inmates between facilities.
But more than two dozen public commenters who spoke against the expansion Tuesday at Commissioners Court and at a news conference prior to the meeting 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.
Statistics from the sheriff’s office show that as of Tuesday, about 40 percent of the female inmate population has been diagnosed with mental illness and 7 percent have been diagnosed as acutely psychotic.
“From the perspective of a person that has been incarcerated, jail is not the answer for women,” said Annette Price, intake specialist at the Texas Fair Defense Project, at the news conference. “Instead of spending this money (on a jail expansion), what we need to do is provide programs.”
Travis County offers several diversion and support programs, such as a drug diversion court, veterans court and a substance abuse residential treatment program. Roger Jefferies, county executive for justice planning, said that from fiscal 2012 to 2017, the county has seen a 40 percent drop in Class B misdemeanor bookings.
Commissioner Brigid Shea made the motion to postpone the decision on funding — through nonvoter approved bonds — about $6 million to design a new women’s facility in the Del Valle jail, part of a larger $616 million master plan recommended by consultants.
“If we are really much more robust about our diversion programs and our mental health support programs, I could see us being successful in reducing the female population,” Shea said.
County Judge Sarah Eckhardt acknowledged that the vote meant additional costs in the meantime, such as overtime and the need for more corrections officers, while the women’s jail remains less efficient from being decentralized.
“It’s a guns or butter argument,” Eckhardt said. “Those are ongoing dollars that I would rather spend on jail diversion” in the future.
After the meeting, Daugherty said he ultimately felt that the expansion will be necessary regardless of diversion program improvements.
“I wanted it both ways,” Daugherty said. “I wanted to be able to say that I think we need a jail, and I think there is a need … to do everything we can to divert women from having to be incarcerated.”
Hernandez said after the meeting that she was disappointed in the vote and added that 30 agencies book into the jail, meaning the county does not have full control over diversion.
“I think we owe the female population a quality facility, but you know what, we’ll continue doing what we do,” Hernandez said. “We’ll continue taking care of the inmates with what we have.”
Holly Kirby, criminal justice programs director at nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, whose group led the demonstration and news conference prior to the vote, said she was pleasantly surprised.
“In the end, we got what we came for,” Kirby said. “I think they heard us, I think they heard the very important stories from people who have been in the system. … Del Valle is not the place for treatment, it’s not the place for care, and we are ready to get to work.”