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Instead of Travis County Jail: A Sobering Center

Mar 17th, 2014 | Category: Bexar County, Harris County, Travis County

Austin American Statesman

Getting arrested and criminally charged with public intoxication in Travis County is a common sight on Austin’s Sixth Street as bars close for the night. And if history is any guide, those arrests will spike during this year’s annual South by Southwest Interactive, Film and Music festivals and conferences.
There is a better way to deal with people who are publicly intoxicated, which is a crime that is the legal equivalent of a traffic violation. Instead of arresting, charging and jailing offenders as is now done, people should be diverted to a sobriety center. That approach would rightly treat public intoxication as the nuisance it is by taking drunken offenders off the street and connecting them with medical or counseling services.
As other cities, such as San Antonio and Houston, moved to establish such sobriety centers, Austin and Travis County dawdled. We applaud recent efforts by an array of criminal justice, law enforcement and medical officials to get things moving. And we welcome, however late, the blessing of Travis County commissioners, who on Tuesday passed a resolution to establish the area’s first sobriety center.
The need for such an alternative is clear: During the past five years, there have been 27,000 arrests in Austin, or 10 percent of all arrests, for public intoxication, according to a report printed in Sunday’s American-Statesman. That kind of treatment for a Class C misdemeanor gives otherwise law-abiding people criminal records, clogs the court system and jails, and diverts Austin police officers from more serious offenses. By contrast, cities with sobriety centers have decriminalized public intoxication.
American-Statesman writers Tony Plohetski and Eric Dexheimer reported on the effects of public intoxication on the Austin area, from the costs of sustaining the current system to the strain on Austin police officers.
In Austin, arrests for public intoxication swelled to about 6,700 in 2009 but have been declining since then largely because of efforts by the Austin Police Department. Two years ago, amid controversy over such arrests, Police Chief Art Acevedo directed his officers to focus their efforts on charging drunken offenders who commit other crimes instead of using public intoxication as a catch-all reason to arrest rowdy partyers. That brought down arrests significantly: Last year, Austin police made 4,300 arrests for public intoxication. Nonetheless, that still amounts to a dozen arrests every day, on average.
Public intoxication arrests have become contentious in a town that boasts what is probably the state’s largest and busiest entertainment district. And the public has grown increasingly skeptical of such arrests that in many cases appear to be more punishment for angering officers than about maintaining public safety. The treatment of public intoxication as a hard-core crime in which people are handcuffed, fingerprinted, have their mug shots taken, and endure court hearings and legal costs runs counter to Austin’s self-proclaimed image as a progressive city — not to mention its marketing as a destination for high-profile events that involve alcohol.
To that point, the Circuit of the Americas racetrack, in its second year, took in more alcohol receipts in November than any other venue in Texas. And the University of Texas announced recently it would start selling alcohol at athletic events for the first time in its history.
Then there is the expense: Travis County pays about $97 a day to incarcerate defendants. Clearly the status quo is outmoded.
San Antonio offers a solid model in its sobriety center, which opened in 2008. Police drop offenders off at the facility, which serves about 650 people a month for a cost of about $1 million annually. That typically takes minutes. There, offenders have the ability to sleep off their intoxication and use the bathroom. They leave without a criminal charge or jail time as soon as staffers deem them sober and safe. That typically takes several hours. Counselors provide treatment information, which helps many get the treatment they need to battle alcoholism, which the medical community defines as a disease.
Austin and Travis County still face challenges in opening a sobriety center, such as securing the financing in the range of $750,000 a year and finding a location near downtown. We urge city and county officials to work with the business community to do that and speed the proposal along.
Austin attorney Mindy Montford has put her finger on the unfairness in Austin’s way of dealing with public intoxication in posing this question: “You would not put somebody in jail for a speeding ticket. Why should you do it for any other Class C offense, even for an hour?”
The answer is obvious. A sobriety center is overdue.


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