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Commissioners clap back at justice advocates protesting county jail plan

Thursday, June 10, 2021 by Seth Smalley

The Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday responded to pushback from criminal justice reform advocates upset at the county’s plan to approve a $4.2 million design contract for a new women’s jail. While commissioners ultimately decided to delay the motion until next week (in a non-unanimous vote), several of them pushed back on the advocates’ characterization of the county jails.

“Nobody likes jails. I don’t know anybody who likes jails. I don’t like jails. Nobody likes having to spend our money on it. But we have a legal responsibility to maintain the jails. And not to just the very least minimum standards; there’s enough of that in Texas already,” Commissioner Brigid Shea said. She went on to state her belief that the county’s justice system is as humane as possible.

“We have to have jails. There are people who are dangerous criminals who need to be in jail. I’m appreciative of what the advocates have done, but at the end of the day we have an unpleasant and unpopular responsibility to maintain the jails,” Shea said.

Shea highlighted Travis County’s investments in diversion courts and jail-prevention programs.

She also made the point that the basis of the $79 million proposal for a women’s jail was developed from the testimony and “expert advice of women who were involved across the spectrum.”

“People need to understand we are not rushing anything. We delayed action in 2018 so that we could have a thoughtful process about how best to design a facility where we are legally required to provide appropriate jail facilities,” she said. “So I’m not going to support a further delay. I think there’s unfortunately been a tremendous amount of misinformation, and frankly, offensive statements made about how Travis County has been conducting itself.”

Commissioner Margaret Gómez, agreeing with Shea, said, “Providing jail space is one of those mandates that county government has. Every county in the country has expanded and we can’t turn away from that. It’s not that easy to say, you know what, I don’t want to do this part of my duty.”

Commissioner Jeffrey Travillion also made the point the effort was previously shot down by commissioners because it wasn’t favorable enough for inmates. “One reason that I voted (in the past) to postpone this process was the design that was brought to us did not have the health care resources that we demanded at the beginning.” Now, according to Travillion, the jail will be able “to provide services that will address problems, create stability and prepare someone to go back successfully into the community.”

County Judge Andy Brown, Commissioner Ann Howard and Commissioner Gómez all voted in favor of postponement, while Commissioner Shea voted against postponement and Commissioner Travillion abstained. The decision is slated for next week.

This story has been corrected. Originally, we reported that Commissioners were considering a $600 million plan. While that is the expected cost of the overall plan for the county jail system, at issue on Tuesday was a $4.2 million design contract for the $79 million women’s jail.

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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