It’s no secret that the United States has a mass incarceration problem. But, did you know Texas ranks as one of the top five states contributing to this problem? It is time for Texas and Travis County — a progressive community — to lead by example. Travis County continues to jail folks at an alarming rate for low-level drug possession, in fact these charges have increased by 90 percent in the last five years, while crime has decreased. Has it occurred to anyone that we are doing a disservice in our community by not taking a closer look at the root causes of criminal justice involvement?
Back in March, in response to community outcry, the Travis County Commissioners Court voted to delay construction of a new jail for women in Del Valle and instead examine existing and new diversion programs. That was the right choice. But, six months later very little progress has been made and certainly not enough to justify a new jail. Instead of taking the time over the last six months to dig into the data and make smart decisions about effective diversion strategies that address the drivers of incarceration and combat alarming racial disparities, Travis County officials have moved forward with their plans to build a new women’s jail, missing a huge opportunity.
As a member of the Sheriff’s advisory board, I’ve sat in numerous meetings with decisions makers who toy with budget plans for jail design and programming, and I still don’t believe a new jail will solve the problem. The Sheriff’s advisory board has continued to discuss things like paint color, the need for menstrual pads with wings (as opposed to without wings) and how to incarcerate pregnant women in the new jail instead of discussing the factors that lead to incarceration for women.
If they did their homework like we have, they would know, for example, that in 2017, women spent 7,406 days in Travis County Jail for drug possession less than one gram (about the amount in a sugar packet), which is a felony offense and one of the top three drivers of bed days for the women in the county. They would also know that of those 7,406 days, 24 percent were served by Black women.
Placing people in a cage when they are experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis is dehumanizing. What people need is treatment for mental health and/or substance abuse, not to be arrested and thrown jail because of it. Yet, Travis County has failed to implement real diversion programs that would keep people out of jail in the first place. If local policy makers would consider mental health and substance abuse prior to arrest and take into account the driving factors which led some folks down this path — what I call “crimes of survival” — they would agree that this a public health issue.
When a person is incarcerated, it leaves a hole in a family. Removing them from the home impacts the entire family dynamic. They are at risk of losing employment, housing and their children to CPS. Not to mention the likelihood of the school-to-prison pipeline impacting their children. When they are released they must rebuild their life, oftentimes not knowing where or how to start. It’s time we invest in solutions to keep them out of jail in the first place.
Furthermore, we cannot ignore the role of race in this issue. In Austin, African Americans are jailed three to four times the rates of Whites. They also spend more days in jail for the same charges than Whites. It's time we take a hard look at our failed criminal justice system and racial disparities in our county. Following progressive trends across Texas and the U.S., local prosecutors and our District Attorney Margaret Moore can and should play a role in curbing felony drug possession charges.
It’s time for us to respect humanity and find solutions instead of continuing with a system that we all know is not working and has not worked since its conception. We can’t continue placing a bandage on the problem and expecting it to heal. We must implement diversion programs as an alternative to arrest. Let’s be a true progressive community with diversion programs that fix our broken system. Jail or prison is not the place to address public health issues such as this.
Annette Price is a formerly incarcerated woman of color, Statewide Coordinator for Texas Advocates for Justice, and member of the women’s jail advisory board in Travis County.