Formerly incarcerated people, criminal justice reform advocates call on Travis County to lower jail population, address mass incarceration crisis

September 23, 2016

Advocates call on Commissioners Court to address root causes of high incarceration rates including mental health and substance abuse, and involve justice-involved individuals in reform efforts during budget and tax rate hearings

(AUSTIN, Texas) — Today, formerly incarcerated people, their loved ones, and criminal justice reform advocates called on the Travis County Commissioners Court to address rising incarceration rates at the Travis County Jail.  

Advocates held a press conference (video available on Facebook Live) and provided testimony at Travis County Commissioners Court calling on the court to invest in community-based programs, rehabilitation, pre-trial service diversion programs, and to involve people impacted by incarceration in criminal justice decisions moving forward.  

The Travis County Sheriff’s Department has asked for 36 additional officers to staff the Travis County Jail, which has experienced a slow but steady increase in the jail population over the last 18 months despite falling arrest rates in the County and historically low crime rates across the country.  Racial disparities also plague the jail. During the first half of last year, black people accounted for 24% of bookings, while making up only 8.9% of the general population in Travis County.

Speakers at the press conference and in Commissioner’s Court included:

  • Brandi Townsend, Claire Morel, Rene Newman, and Jorge Renaud, Texas Advocates for Justice

  • Kandace Vallejo, Youth Rise Texas

  • Reggie Smith, Communities for Recovery

  • Lindsey Linder, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition

  • Nathan Fennell, Texas Fair Defense Project

  • Jimmy Preston, Second Chance Democrats

  • Chris Harris, Grassroots Leadership

Several speakers from Texas Advocates for Justice, a statewide network of formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones, also testified about their experiences of the detrimental impact of the ongoing incarceration crisis in Travis County, especially on individuals and families that can least afford long-term incarceration.  

Rene Newman, a transgender woman and member of Texas Advocates for Justice, spoke about her experience in the Travis County Jail.  “In my week in jail, I was housed in the men’s unit, singled out and harassed, and denied my hormone regime,” she said.  “My questions fell on deaf ears while waiting to hear from my attorney.  No one should have to endure that humiliation and dehumanization.  More money for jail officers is not the solution to this crisis.”

Jorge Renaud, Texas Advocates for Justice organizer said, “The Travis County Sheriff’s Office is asking for more officers even when crime indicators are falling. When a decision is made to use limited funds to increase staffing in jails, that means there are less funds for the communities of color whose members sit in those jails, most of them not yet convicted of a crime.”

Advocacy groups called on the Commissioners to address the incarceration crisis in Travis County as part of the budget process. They also pointed out that local agencies that offer services to individuals with mental health issues lack dependable funding, and that many of those individuals inevitably ended up in jail, which only worsens their problems.

"Many of the people housed in the Travis County Jail don't need to be there,” said Nathan Fennell of the Texas Fair Defense Project.  “Detaining these low-risk people before trial is not only expensive for local taxpayers, but harms communities and makes us all less safe. We already have the tools to safely release more people before trial - we just need to use them more and more effectively."

Advocates called for a strengthening of pre-trial services. "Pretrial release decisions are crucial to the safe and efficient operation of Texas jails. With increased and safe use of personal bonds, adopting a more risk-based assessment tool could alleviate the current costly strain on Travis County jail,” said Lindsey Linder of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.  “We must continue investing in pretrial diversion, treatment, and services over incarceration. Continued movement toward these policies will yield impressive savings and even better public safety outcomes."

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Grassroots Leadership is an Austin, Texas-based national organization that works to end prison profiteering and reduce reliance on criminalization and detention through direct action, organizing, research, and public education.