WHAT: Travis County Commissioners Court will vote on whether to move forward construction of a new and expanded women’s jail
WHO: Formerly incarcerated women, the Decarcerate ATX Coalition
WHEN: Tuesday, March 6 at 10 a.m.
WHERE: Outside of Commissioners Courtroom at 700 Lavaca St.
AUSTIN — Local advocates say there are cheaper and more effective alternatives to increase public safety than costly construction of a new women’s jail. Members of the Decarcerate ATX Coalition will share those alternatives with Travis County Commissioners Tuesday morning as they consider moving forward with a plan to invest $97 million in the construction of a new and expanded jail designed for women at the Travis County Correctional Complex.
A new report offers a better solution to overcrowding and poor jail conditions in Travis County than the proposed $97 million construction of a new women’s jail. “A Public Health Approach to Illicit Drug Use in Travis County” released today by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC) explains how the criminal justice system is actually exacerbating the problem of drug use in the County. Instead of costly and ineffective criminal justice responses, TCJC recommends investing in the services recommended by community stakeholders and to follow a strategy to divert people from the typical criminal justice process.
Local advocates and community members plan on packing the court chamber to show their opposition to a new women’s jail being built without a concrete plan to reduce the jail population, arguing that more must be done to divert people away from the criminal justice system and that taxpayer dollars are better spent elsewhere for public safety.
The Decarcerate ATX coalition has previously recommended three policy changes to reduce the jail population. Advocates argue that the jail population could be significantly reduced by: decriminalizing all offenses that are eligible for cite-and-release; reevaluating the prosecution of state jail felonies; and investing in community alternatives to arrest for mental health and substance use disorders.
According to analysis by Texas Appleseed and Grassroots Leadership of women booked into Travis County Jail in 2015 & 2016:
Women charged with possession of less than a gram of a controlled substance collectively spent more than 31,000 nights in jail
Black women comprised 21.78 percent of bookings and 27.27 percent of distinct days in jail, even though African Americans are only 7.7 percent of the Travis County population
Bookings with a misdemeanor lead charge made up 75.67 percent of total bookings and led to more than 100 women in jail per night on average
People charged with only low-level crimes that don't require arrest made up 27.02 percent of total bookings
In addition, county officials have stated that the number of women with mental health needs account for more than half of currently incarcerated women, and more than two-thirds of the county jail population have a substance use disorder. Before spending millions on new construction, the data shows a clear path to reduce the jail population — providing adequate treatment and service options in the community for individuals who have substance use disorder or other mental health needs.
Current Decarerate ATX coalition members include Counter Balance ATX, Excellence and Advancement Foundation, Grassroots Leadership, Lone Star Justice Alliance, MEASURE Austin, Texas Advocates for Justice, Texas Appleseed, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and Texas Fair Defense.
Many local organizations have signed on to a letter urging Travis County Commissioners to vote against a new women’s jail and invest in alternatives to incarceration for individuals with mental health and substance use disorders. That list includes the Decarcerate ATX Coalition members listed above and Austin Justice Coalition, Allgo, Austin Community Law Center, Black Sovereign Nation, Communities of Color United, Democratic Socialists of America - Austin, Texas Fair Defense Project, Gathering Ground Theatre, Left Up to Us, Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, NARAL Pro Choice Texas, Texas Advocates for Justice, Texas Appleseed, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, United We Dream, Undoing White Supremacy Austin, Workers Defense Project, YWCA Austin.
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Grassroots Leadership is an Austin, Texas-based national organization that works for a more just society where prison profiteering, mass incarceration, deportation and criminalization are things of the past.
Doug Smith, DSmith@texascjc.org, 512-441-8123
Holly Kirby, HKirby@grassrootsleadership.org, 512-499-811