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Photo by Austin Sobering Center

County looks to Sobering Center to house jail-diversion program

Friday, December 17, 2021 by Seth Smalley

On Thursday, the Travis County Commissioners Court convened a working group meeting to receive the findings of a feasibility study regarding the potential combination of a criminal justice/mental health diversion program with the Austin-Travis County Sobering Center. The county commissioned the study to ascertain whether saving costs on the diversion program by coupling it with existing county resources would be realistic and attainable.

Commissioners had directed the study in June, in response to public outcry over a proposed costly expansion of the women’s jail. Around the same time, commissioners additionally recommended that those charged with non-violent criminal trespassing be considered for a pilot study as one potential diversion population.

“This phase is intended to answer the question: Can we do this at the Sobering Center? Can we have a diversion project at the Sobering Center?” said Sherri Fleming, a county executive with Health and Human Services.

County employees corresponded with relevant stakeholders to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the possible joint diversion program. The stakeholders listed by Fleming were the board and staff members of the Sobering Center, as well as direct service providers.

The study, carried out by county HHS and Justice Planning, also examined and analyzed criminal trespass data at the direction of commissioners.

“The five main research initiatives are criminal justice trespass data analysis, criminal trespass affidavit, review, a survey on client needs with a criminal trespass charge, a data presentation and facilitated session with the Sobering Center’s board and staff, and a focus group with providers,” Fleming explained to commissioners.

Roughly half of those booked for criminal trespassing in 2020 received mental health services during their time, according to the findings. Additionally, the study found that criminal trespass charges have increased (1,439 in 2020), despite a decrease in the overall number of bookings.

Commissioner Jeffrey Travillion asked about which types of criminal trespassers would be able to qualify for diversion at the Sobering Center, if the program were implemented.

“Is that breaking in someone’s house? Is that breaking in someone’s car? I imagine that there is not an element of assault involved and there’s not an element of a weapon being used. But what types of offenses are we talking about when we say criminal trespass?” Travillion said.

“We were making a very clear distinction for the purposes of a pilot, only look at people who are not charged with any violent offenses,” said Commissioner Brigid Shea. “It was based on conversations with a number of the judges who’ve been dealing a lot with the homeless population and some conversations with the head of the Sobering Center.”

A county attorney present clarified that the constituents for the program would have committed “misdemeanor Bs,” which relate to trespassing on property that is not a home. “It definitely does not involve an assaultive offense or include an actual assault, which is a different section in the penal code,” said Jennifer Kraber, a county attorney.

The next stage of the study will likely include information on a formal budget and implementation procedures, according to Fleming.

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