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County staffers update commissioners on the jail plan resolution

Monday, October 25, 2021 by Seth Smalley

Last Tuesday’s Commissioners Court session focused on the future of the women’s jail.

The Planning and Budget Office reported on the June 15 resolution, which asked county staff for strategies to reduce the number of incarcerated women and enhance jail services with diversion programs and other reforms. The resolution also prohibits any new activity in county jail facilities for 12 months.

Christy Moffett, the interim director for economic and strategic developments, explained that an interdepartmental team has met to coordinate their response based upon the court’s June 15 direction.

The budget office’s proposal suggests hiring a consultant team in addition to creating a court-appointed committee that will consist of two subcommittees – one focused on different aspects of the June resolution and one composed of a Travis County Sheriff’s Office advisory group, “which will assist in the development of recommendations for improved jail services.” The advisory group will be created through sheriff appointees and will make recommendations regarding programmatic needs of incarcerated individuals.

If approved, the proposal will permit county staff to hire the consultant and the subcontractors needed for the project. According to Moffett, this step would take six months.

At the same time, a committee to reduce the number of women in jail will be formed.

“Staff will work with the county’s intergovernmental relations office to assist in coordinating an application process to select candidates with a uniform appointment process for the court’s approval,” Moffett said.

Prior to the session, a group of organizations, including the Texas Fair Defense Project, Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, Texas Center for Justice and Equity, and Austin Justice Coalition sent commissioners a letter detailing their concerns with the procedure.

“Simply put, community voice and the experiences of people impacted by the criminal legal system must be centered in plans to de-carcerate Travis County, not ancillary to them. The proposed process gets this order wrong,” the letter reads.

The letter takes issue with the advisory group tasked with improving programming being fully controlled by Sheriff Sally Hernandez, “who has pushed for years for a new jail and has a conflict of interest when it comes to taking a hard look at culture and practices within the jail.” (Last week Hernandez mentioned in court that the women’s jail population had risen significantly.)

The letter goes on to highlight concerns with the level of community input, calling for the hiring process for the consultant to be community-led. “Black people (are) incarcerated at a rate of three times the county’s population. We do not trust Justice Planning to do the work to de-carcerate the jail and end racial disparities,” read the letter.

Addressing the letter, County Judge Andy Brown said he would like commissioners to have the ability to directly appoint members of the committees.

“These are really committees that are trying to, basically, do research and figure out best practices,” he said. “I think that would be well served by each commissioner being able to put people on there that they think would serve that issue.”

He continued, “This is not a topic without controversy and there are folks with different philosophies about this … I think we should try our very best to incorporate everyone’s voice into this process.”

In response, Moffett proposed reaching out to victims and criminal justice and public safety advocates to solicit a greater variety of opinions.

Commissioner Brigid Shea pointed out that the county has a state-mandated responsibility to keep the local jail in compliance with state standards.

“You have a bare minimum duty for meeting the budget that will allow for proper compliance with those statutes and rules,” a staff member said.

No action was taken at the session regarding this item, but there will be an updated presentation addressing commissioners’ concerns about the letter in a couple of weeks.

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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