Travis County begins contract negotiations for women’s jail facility as overall jail population continues to decline

Travis County commissioners voted to allow staff to begin contract negotiations for a new women's jail facility at a Dec. 10 meeting. (Courtesy Travis County Sheriff's Office)
Travis County commissioners voted to allow staff to begin contract negotiations for a new women's jail facility at a Dec. 10 meeting. (Courtesy Travis County Sheriff's Office)

Travis County commissioners voted to allow staff to begin contract negotiations for a new women's jail facility at a Dec. 10 meeting. (Courtesy Travis County Sheriff's Office)

After years of development, Travis County commissioners voted unanimously to authorize county staff to begin negotiations with Nebraska-based HDR Architecture on a $77.5 million contract to build a new women’s jail facility at a Dec. 10 meeting.

The county has planned to build a new, separate women’s facility for years, despite some pushback from local activists.

“Instead of investing in more jails and institutions that further criminalize and jail Black and Brown people, the money at the county’s disposal should instead be diverted towards strategies that end mass incarceration, including fair and equal representation and pre-arrest diversion,” said Annette Price, the director of Texas Advocates for Justice, in an April statement. Texas Advocates for Justice is a network of formerly incarcerated people.

Travis County has made progress on improving its representation services and diversion programs. In August, the county received a $48 million state grant to create a general public defender’s office. Austin is the largest city in the country without one.

Additionally, because of diversion programs and screening efforts, bookings at the Travis County jail decreased 22% from fiscal year 2014-15 to FY 2018-19, according to a presentation made to commissioners at the Dec. 10 meeting.

Mental health jail bookings decreased 19% in that same time period, which the Travis County Sheriff’s Office attributed to changes in its screening process.

Overall, misdemeanor jail bookings—the majority of bookings in Travis County—decreased 33%, while felony jail bookings increased by 2% between FY 2014-15 and FY 2018-19, per the presentation.

“We are not holding in jail the people who commit very minor offenses when we can do anything about that,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Brigid Shea at the Dec. 10 meeting. “We’ve had very successful diversion programs, so who’s in jail now is really the people who have committed very serious offenses who you need to keep in jail.”

Local diversion programs include the city of Austin’s Freedom City policies, passed in June 2018; the Sobering Center, which opened in August 2018; a four-hour class available to those cited for possession of marijuana as an alternative to an arrest record; and a charge reduction for driving with a suspended license that allows for a fine rather than a jail booking.

The Sobering Center, for example, diverted 2,010 people from being booked at the Travis County jail in FY 2018-19 for a public intoxication charge, per the presentation.

These trends also apply to the local women’s jail population.

Between FY 2014-15 and FY 2018-19, women’s jail bookings decreased 23%, and women’s mental health jail bookings decreased 11%, per the presentation.

Despite the declining number of bookings, Travis County will continue to pursue a new women’s jail facility. Commissioners approved a capacity of 350 beds—slightly lower than the staff recommendation of 360 beds—in April.

“If county diversion efforts, economic and geographic trends, and local law enforcement practices continue, with no change in justice legislation at the state or national level, staff can expect a generally steady jail population into the future despite a growing county population,” Travis County Executive Roger Jefferies wrote in a Nov. 27 memo to commissioners.

Additionally, Jefferies—who oversees justice and public safety—stressed the need for a centralized facility to better serve women who are incarcerated in Travis County.

“Once it was thought that the more the individual ‘suffered’ the less chance they would commit crime in the future,” Jefferies wrote. “Now we understand there is more to it than someone choosing to commit a crime; that not everyone belongs in jail (diversion); and for those that must be in jail, trauma informed care will better serve both the community and those involved with the criminal justice system.”

Travis County is on track to hire a consultant to help design the new jail facility and its programs, such as medical services, by early February, according to Jefferies’ memo.
By Emma Freer

Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her beat includes the Travis County Commissioners Court and local business news. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.


New dockless vehicles, such as Revel mopeds, have entered the Austin market, in addition to electric scooters, pictured here in West Campus. (Emma Freer/Community Impact Newspaper)
City of Austin expects to see more dockless vehicles used for longer trips in 2020

When electric scooters first arrived in Austin in April 2018, residents and city officials alike raised concerns about regulations, safety and inconvenience.

Austin City Council directed the Austin Police Department to end enforcement of lower-level marijuana possession offenses to furthest extent possible under state law during a Jan. 23 meeting.  (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin police chief doubles down: Cops will continue citing and, in some cases, arresting for pot possession despite City Council direction

City Council decision does not change how police department handles marijuana possession, according to the police chief.

Trudy's North Star, located at 8820 Burnet Road, Austin, was closed as of Friday afternoon, Jan. 24, with a sign on the door saying the restaurant would reopen Monday, Jan. 27. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Trudy's files for bankruptcy, owes employees more than $267,000 in unpaid wages

According to court documents, the Tex-Mex restaurant's financial issues started with its Dripping Springs location, which lost over $1 million per year.

Students at Lee Lewis Campbell Elementary Media and Performing Arts Institute in East Austin point to their classmate holding the red bag, whose artwork is featured on the new electric bus. (Amy Denney/Community Impact Newspaper)
Capital Metro sets ambitious goal to eventually replace all 423 buses with electric versions

Starting Jan. 26, riders can ride the new electric buses, which will rotate among routes.

(Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Council members divided over hire of outside attorney in property protest rights lawsuit

Some City Council members said taxpayer dollars should not be used to fight taxpayer interests.

Central Health is exploring options to provide a cash injection to its employees with minimum wage salaries. (Courtesy Fotolia)
Central Health will explore minimum wage bumps for its employees

The health care district is considering increasing its minimum wage to $15 per hour.

The 87,744-square-foot campus formerly occupied by HealthSouth has remained vacant for several years. (Courtesy Google Maps)
With resources limited in homelessness initiatives, potential of former HealthSouth property sparks disagreement on City Council

The city-owned 87,744-square-foot property has sat vacant in downtown Austin for years.

(Courtesy Whataburger)
Whataburger opens new location on East Oltorf Street

This is the burger chain's 19th location in Austin.

Travis County commissioners participated in budget hearings during the fiscal year 2018-19 budget process. (Taylor Jackson Buchanan/Community Impact Newspaper)
Travis Central Appraisal District board will host in-person meetings for informal protests in 2020

The Travis Central Appraisal District board of trustees voted to bring back in-person meetings for informal protests this year.

Residents can expect mailers to arrive by mid-March requesting they participate in the 2020 census. (Courtesy U.S. Census Bureau)
Austin-Travis County officials establish nonprofit to raise funds to support complete census count

Officials in Austin and Travis County have formed a complete count committee to support the 2020 census effort.

Austin Transportation installed "No parking" signs in 2019 on South Congress Avenue to discourage illegal parking in bicycle lanes. (Courtesy Google Maps)
Austin to start issuing tickets to drivers who park in bike-only lanes in effort to improve safety

Drivers who illegal park in a bicycle lane could receive a $300 fine and have their vehicles towed.

Back to top