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County looks to expand jail-diversion programs

Wednesday, July 28, 2021 by Seth Smalley

The Travis County Commissioners Court discussed the prospect Tuesday of expanding the scope of the Austin-Travis County Sobering Center to include aid (in the form of jail diversion) to those experiencing homelessness and mental health issues.

Currently, the Sobering Center provides an alternative to jail for those charged with public intoxication. Since its launch in 2018, the center has diverted over 5,000 people from going to jail. On June 15 of this year – the same day the county received pushback from advocates and community members regarding a plan to invest big in the county jail – the Commissioners Court directed county Health and Human Services to come up with an expansion plan for the Sobering Center as part of an alternative to putting more money toward diversion programs.

“We would want to work with our criminal justice partners to further define both the population and the potential infractions that we would want to include,” County Executive Sherri Fleming said, referring to increasing the number of roles of the center would play.

Together with Roger Jefferies of HHS, Fleming worked with her staff to create a basic overview of what would be needed to expand the center’s operation. Steps before scope expansion include a feasibility study, stakeholder engagement meetings, formation of an advisory committee, decisions to be made on the scope of services, budgeting decisions, and the creation of a pilot program prior to implementation. Though budget particulars were not mentioned during Tuesday’s meeting, it’s worth mentioning that many speakers at the contentious June 15 meeting called for the $80 million (that otherwise would have gone to constructing more jail space) to go to diversion programs instead.

“Integrating not only the research and planning that we’ve done, but also advice and counsel from an advisory group, designing the appropriate policies and practices and then coming back to the court with that program designed to talk about both the pilot strategy and potential budget,” Fleming said, describing next steps for planning the diversion program.

Austin City Council has a similar resolution on this week’s agenda, to study opportunities to create a mental health diversion pilot program in collaboration with the county’s efforts.

“There’s more details to work out with the city, but they’d be taking the necessary steps to indicate to their staff support for this effort at our combined city/county Sobering Center,” said Commissioner Brigid Shea.

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