AUSTIN — Formerly incarcerated people and criminal justice reform advocates celebrated a victory Tuesday afternoon when county officials in Central Texas voted down the construction of a new $97 million women’s jail. On a 3-1 vote, the Travis County Commissioners Court voted to remove funding for design and pre-construction of the new women’s jail from certificates of obligation approved today and urged stakeholders to present solutions for lowering the local jail population.
Local advocates had argued that there were cheaper and more effective alternatives to increase public safety than costly construction of a new women’s jail. More than 25 formerly incarcerated women and members of the Decarcerate ATX Coalition shared those alternatives with Travis County Commissioners on Tuesday as they considered 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. Those opposed to the new jail testified before of the Commissioners Court for hours.
“The vote today is a huge victory for us. The commissioners listened to the community and made the right choice,” said Holly Kirby, criminal justice programs director at Grassroots Leadership. “Ultimately, this is about what our community values: health, safety, and equity. The vote today opens the door for us to get to work on downsizing our jail and investing in community alternatives for a safer, healthier and more just Travis County.”
Today, advocates also released a new report to support solutions to overcrowding and poor jail conditions in Travis County other 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 recommended investing in the services recommended by community stakeholders and to follow a strategy to divert people from the typical criminal justice process.
The Decarcerate ATX coalition had 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.
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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.
Holly Kirby, firstname.lastname@example.org, 512-499-8111