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 major victory for criminal justice reform advocates who spent more than an hour testifying.
The vote was 3-1, with Commissioner Gerald Daugherty voting no in a surprise departure from his earlier comments and Comissioner Margaret Gómez off of the dais.
Commissioner Brigid Shea made the motion to postpone funding, through non-voter 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.
Judge Sarah Eckhardt said Tuesday that she saw room for improvement of diversion programs before the court decides an expansion is absolutely necessary.
“We don’t need another facility,” Eckhardt said. “We need a better facility.”
Daugherty had initially said he thought the vote was premature while the court considers how to improve diversion programs but minutes later voted against the motion to postpone.
After the meeting, Daugherty said he ultimately felt that the expansion will be necessary regardless of diversion program improvements, although he wants to see both happen.
“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 that we have in this community to do everything we can to divert women from having to be incarcerated.”
Holly Kirby, criminal justice programs director at nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, said after the meeting that she was pleasantly surprised by the vote.
“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.”