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.
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)