Did you know that there is a better way to address mental and behavior health in Travis County? I recently took trips to Houston and San Antonio to see first-hand how these Texas cities are mitigating the high cost of public intoxication arrests—many of which involve the homeless or mentally ill.
Accompanying me on these trips were United Way and Caritas board member Dan Graham, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition executive director Ana Correa, Austin Interfaith Leader Ofelia Zapata, Austin/Travis County EMS Association president Tony Marquardt, and Ending Community Homelessness Coalition Board Member Tim League, —all of whom, like me, are passionate about this matter.
What we found in both cities are success stories. Houston and San Antonio have Sobriety Centers—places police can take inebriated people to sober up and steer to counseling services and recovery resources. In Houston, we toured the Houston Center for Sobriety, witnessed an intake, and saw clients sleeping off their intoxication. In San Antonio we toured the much larger Haven for Hope campus.
Sobriety Centers are smart and effective alternatives to the timely and costly process of throwing inebriated people into jail.
Other cities around the country—from Boise and Denver to San Francisco and San Diego—established Sobriety Centers years ago. They get it.
And it’s time we establish a Sobriety Center in Travis County.
What I’m proposing in no way reduces punishment for offenses involving driving while intoxicated or driving while under the influence of a substance. Rather, it addresses how we use our emergency rooms, booking facilities and jail to warehouse inebriated, non-violent offenders.
Right now, if a police officer or a deputy sheriff picks someone up who is extremely intoxicated, the officer may call an Austin/Travis County EMS ambulance to take that person to an emergency room. Then, a police officer must stand guard until the person sobers up enough to be placed in central booking. This crowds our emergency rooms and takes law enforcement officers away from their jobs of patrolling our streets for criminals.
And guess who’s picking up the tab for the whole process? Taxpayers.
The expense continues once the person is booked. Taxpayers are also on the hook for the costs of a prosecutor, jail, and often a defense lawyer.
Haven for Hope in San Antonio officially opened in 2010. In its first year of operation, there were about 5,000 fewer jail bookings compared to the previous year. City and county officials there have estimated that by diverting serial public inebriates from their detention facility, it could realize annual cost savings of more than $2 million.
Leonard Kincaid, operations director of the Houston Recovery Center, says Sobriety Centers are a simple solution to a big problem. “It takes our officers about 10 minutes to drop a client off at a Sobriety Center,” Kincaid told my office. “But, if officers arrest the person and take them to jail, that’s about two hours.” According to the Houston Chronicle, it costs $1.5 million to run the center compared to the $4 to $6 million it costs Houston to process public intoxication cases.
Travis County has been considering this solution for more than a decade and there are currently discussions about making a Sobriety Center here a reality.
Sobriety Centers are not the entire solution, though.
We also need to continue increasing mental health beds and behavioral and mental health treatment. Here in the Austin/Travis County area, the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimate of homeless for 2013 was 6,339 individuals. Travis County is currently in the middle of a pilot program that is identifying and assisting people who cycle in and out of our county jail and emergency rooms. Many of these offenders are homeless or mentally ill. According to Travis County’s Criminal Justice Planning department, “Historically, the most common offenses found during evaluation of arrests and bookings for homeless, mentally ill individuals, have been public intoxication and criminal trespass.”
We must stop this costly cycle.
A 2009 Travis County study estimated it would cost about $1.2 million to start the sobriety center. In the long run, getting serious about establishing a Sobriety Center could potentially save taxpayers millions of dollars.
Let’s put additional resources up front for behavioral and mental health care. Let’s divert people from our criminal justice system and help them get treatment where it makes sense. Let’s take some of the pressure off our jail and hospital emergency rooms. And let’s allow our officers to serve our city and protect our neighborhoods in effective ways that keep us all safe.