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After public condemnation, county to rework correctional master plan

Wednesday, June 16, 2021 by Seth Smalley

A highly anticipated Travis County Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday was more contentious than usual and lasted later into the evening to accommodate hours of public comments criticizing a plan to allocate $80 million to fund a new women’s jail.

Though the item in question specifically referred to the $4.3 million design contract for the Travis County Trauma Informed Women’s Facility Project, criticism focused chiefly on the broader plan: to spend $80 million – as part of a $600 million master plan – on a correctional facility expansion, as opposed to allocating the money toward prevention-based community services.

A separate item, which was popular with the public, proposed the redevelopment and replacement of the master plan with a working group tasked with reducing the number of incarcerated women. The same item additionally put forward that the final decision should be delayed for at least a year, pending the conclusion of the working group. (“Vote no on 16 and yes on 29,” was the refrain of public callers.)

Despite initial pushback from commissioners Brigid Shea and Jeff Travillion, the motion eventually passed following hours of public comment from professors, lawyers, members of advocacy groups and formerly incarcerated people.

“Today at Commissioners Court, we voted to invest in the community by supporting a re-envisioned plan for our justice system. Because of the unprecedented community opposition, the court said no to building a new jail,” County Judge Andy Brown said in a statement. Brown had spearheaded the motion, along with Commissioner Ann Howard.

“This takes into account that the population has changed, many other things have changed. It directs staff not just to look at issues such as competency restoration, mental and behavioral health care outside of the jail. What we’re asking staff to do would be to come back to us with a proposal to update the current plan,” Brown said.

The original master plan was the result of a systems needs analysis conducted in partnership with a number of outside consultants. However, as criminal justice reform advocates noted, the projections made by consultants were off-base as they did not account for a significantly reduced jail population. While consultants initially assumed a jail population of more than 2,700 by 2021, in reality the number is about half that today.

“How do we get the necessary information that we need? How do we deal with the fact that Building 12 – the newest building out there – only has 700 people in it and a capacity for 1,300?” Brown said. “I do know that our jail population is very low compared to when that first strategic plan came out. In my conversations with people who actually work in the jail with corrections duties, they tell me that we could fit every single one of these women, correctly spaced out, into Building 12.”

The question remains how much money will be reallocated to non-jail-related purposes.

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

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