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Criminal justice reformers push back on county jail renovations

Tuesday, June 8, 2021 by Seth Smalley

Just outside the Travis County Commissioners Court at 700 Lavaca St. yesterday, a number of criminal justice reform groups held a press conference to protest Travis County’s plan to spend $600 million on construction and renovation of new jail facilities in the county. The plan, says Amanda Woog, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project, was developed five years ago in partnership with a number of industry consultants. “They called it the master plan,” she said.

The advocates are asking the county to invest in alternatives to mass incarceration that will address root causes as opposed to merely making updates to current incarceration facilities.

“We are calling for a moratorium on all jail construction and expansion,” Woog said, “for a justice reinvestment plan led directly by impacted people, not paid industry consultants or county bureaucrats. The plan should focus on what resources are needed to keep people out of jail, instead of the ‘build it and they will fill it mentality’ that the county is currently in.”

For further evidence that the master plan is not needed, the advocates pointed to reform measures in both the city and county that have reduced the jail population in Travis County to its lowest level since 1990.

The women’s jail population has shrunk even more drastically than the general jail population, by over 60 percent. In 2017, the number of jailed women sat at 383, while today it hovers around 153.

“It is mind-boggling that the Travis County commissioners are seriously considering continuing with these plans – as part of them, an $80 million reinvestment in women’s jail,” Woog said.

She underscored the fact that the plan’s investment in jail programming would have next to no impact on the 65 percent of women who are jailed for less than three days. “That’s just long enough to lose jobs, housing and custody of children. These resources would be better spent on programming within the community.”

Last week, however, Christy Moffett with the county budget office made the point that the county “is only allowed to do what the state specifically says we can, as it relates to operating jails.” Moffett pointed to a “systems needs analysis” conducted by outside consultants that provided the baseline information for the master plan.

Woog noted that the projections made by consultants were off-base. “The plan assumed a jail population of more than 2,700 people. But today, the jail population is hovering at just over half that number, around 1,400 people,” she pointed out.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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