You heard the calls to defund the Austin Police Department, you demanded that elected officials take notice, and you made it possible to begin shifting City of Austin resources from policing to community. But did you know that Travis County is the primary arm of government that incarcerates Austin residents and their budget process is happening right now?
We’ve created this Q&A on everything you need to know about this and what you can do now.
What’s happening September 29th?
Travis County Commissioners will be voting to approve the current FY21 budget on Sept 29th and policing and incarceration make up nearly a third of the total Travis County budget. As we continue to press the city to fund community not policing, and incoming county officials pledge to reduce mass incarceration and the prosecution of low-level offenses, we need a county budget that meets this moment instead of one that continues the status quo of mass incarceration.
What has Grassroots Leadership done in an effort to end mass incarceration in Travis County?
For years, BIPOC community members have already been calling to stop locking up our loved ones and instead invest in the resources our communities need, yet the county has largely refused to follow this path.
In 2018, when the Sheriff asked for a new Women’s Jail that would lock up hundreds more women, many of whom are mothers and breadwinners for their families, Grassroots Leadership and Texas Advocates for Justice, along with other advocates showed up in force to oppose the plan. We won a year-long delay of the new jail only for Commissioners to ultimately fund it again amid ongoing opposition from formerly incarcerated people and criminal justice advocates.
Later that year, our successful fight for the Freedom City initiative led to fewer arrests for low-level offenses and a resulting drop in jail population, yet the county is still funding an additional jail and has not significantly reduced the Incarceration, Sheriff, and Courts Budget to respond to the further changes now being made at the city level.
We knew that our justice system is designed to criminalize and lock up communities of color, and Travis County is no exception, so in 2019, we began a court watch to record the culture that thrived on lack of transparency and accessibility for people involved in the justice system. In collaboration with other community groups and by uplifting directly impacted community voices, we pushed the county to invest in a holistic public defender’s office.
Just last year, the Homes Not Handcuffs campaign led to the city partially repealing No sit / No lie ordinances that criminalized the daily existence of unhoused people, but the county is still pursuing a failed strategy of funding “Homeless Outreach Deputies” instead of housing and resources.
What is Travis County’s role in perpetuating mass incarceration?
Travis County also oversees civil and criminal courts. “Justice” Planning is the county’s bureaucratic arm that makes key decisions regarding incarceration within Travis County without any sort of vision for ending mass incarceration locally. They support the Commissioners Court with data analysis, planning, and further implementation of the county’s sheriffs, jails, courts, and more. This is what the Commissioner’s Court depends on to further expand mass incarceration.
How do the city and county rely on each other when it comes to mass incarceration?
The city and the county have different responsibilities when it comes to incarceration and policing. Both are harmful to our communities and, in some ways, they depend on each other to carry out “justice” functions.
For instance, while the Sheriff’s Department runs the Travis County Jail, about 75% of all people currently incarcerated are arrested by APD. Other enforcement and arresting agencies with which the Sheriff’s Department collaborates with are DHS, ICE, DPS/State Troopers, U.S. Marshals, Constables, and University Police.
What are some of the items Travis County is funding in this budget?
The combined budgets of the corrections, sheriff, and the courts and justice departments make up about 32% of the total Travis County budget, including the following:
- Previously budgeted funds for design & engineering of the new Women’s jail
- Additional constables for traffic enforcement (the most common way immigrants end up in the deportation pipeline)
- Additional constables for “Homeless outreach deputies” who are not best equipped to provide services and whose funding should be spent outside of the Sheriff’s Office
- License Plate readers (surveillance system that photographs license plates and funnels this date into ARIC (Austin Regional Intelligence Center) where it is accessible by agencies such as DHS, ICE, DPS/State Troopers, U.S. Marshals
- New software for a Sheriff’s office drone
- Ongoing funding for School Resource Officers that contribute to the school to prison pipeline
- Electronic monitoring contract with subsidiary for-profit prison company CoreCivic
What should the County fund instead?
We are calling on Commissioners to reduce this year’s corrections, sheriff, and courts budget by 30%; more specifically:
- Remove previously budgeted funds for design & engineering of the new women’s jail
- Surveillance programs like license plate readers and drones
- Remove school resource officers
These funds should be reallocated to fund:
- High quality, nonpunitive, community-based healthcare including an adequate continuum of care for mental health and substance use disorders. A continuum of care includes outreach, harm reduction & mobile clinics, peer-run crisis respite centers, on-demand opioid use disorder medication, especially methadone, detox, outpatient and residential care, provided by a diverse set of community-based organizations.
- Low barrier permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness
- Fully fund comprehensive indigent defense through the new Public Defender’s Office, including universal migrant representation.
I want to urge my elected official to fund my community instead of mass incarceration. What can I do?
Sign our petition to urge Travis County commissioners to fund our community’s health and wellbeing, not our incarceration and jailing!
I still have questions!
We know some of this can get confusing, and we want to make sure everyone can understand a process that is heavily bureaucratic and inaccessible to community. If you have any questions, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remember that policing is not just about the police department and officers in uniforms. It is also about the other systems that policing depends on, such as jails, the courts, surveillance, and more in order to continue justifying its existence.