Opinion: Invest in Women and Families, Not New Jails

Opinion: Invest in Women and Families, Not New Jails

On June 8, the Travis County Commissioners Court will decide whether to spend $80 million to construct a new jail. We should not do this. Instead, let's invest in needed mental and behavioral health services and housing outside of the jail.

A 2015 Travis County 20-year $700 million plan for our justice system, on which county staff bases the need for a jail, projected significant growth of the jail population through 2035. The report projected a jail population of 2,834. Yet the jail population at the end of May was 1,436 – half the plan's estimate.

The first step in this outdated plan is to build an $80 million women's jail. For perspective, we spend less on Health & Human Services ($73.92 million), Infrastructure & Environmental Services ($23.23 million), or Community & Economic Development ($17.42 million) in a year.

We must step back from this antiquated plan.

About 65% of women in jail are there for three days or less, which deeply destabilizes their families but doesn't give them access to resources. Of the remaining 35% who stay over three days, almost half have been designated with a mental health need.

For women with mental illnesses, the average length of stay is 41 days. Although the number of people in jail has gone down in the past year, the number of people who have a mental illness has not decreased at the same rate.

Due to the underfunded mental health hospital system in the state of Texas, a big jail population driver is competency restoration. If someone is not mentally competent to stand trial, even if they are accused of something minor, they wait for months in jail until a bed opens in a state hospital. The result of this lack of resources outside the jail is that people – women in particular – needlessly wait months in jail. This underscores the need for more and better competency restoration and mental health resources outside of jail.

A good example of alternative assistance is Austin's Sobering Center. Approximately 5,000 people received direct assistance without spending time in jail or losing their job or family.

If we want to ensure our community is safe for all of us, we must address the root causes of racism within our justice system and not continue to perpetuate a system that primarily targets Black and brown individuals. Today, the Travis County Jail's population consists of 34% Black women and men even though only 9% of Travis County's population is Black. One way we can help is by investing in more services outside the jail, addressing the needs in the Black community.

This is an opportunity for us to take lessons from the past year and decide who we should be. If we want our community to be more safe, we have to address the root cause of crime – locking people up when they have unmet mental or behavioral health needs doesn't make them better and doesn't make us safer.

In the past year, our community clearly mandated that a new jail isn't what we should choose to lead on. If there's any community that can lead on a better solution, it's ours.

We, as Travis County, need to revamp the way we look at the criminal justice system and look at how this money can better serve the community itself. A new jail for women is not the right thing to lead on as the most progressive county in the state.

Let's work with established community organizations to put resources directly into the community and meaningfully address the needs of the community. Let's be leaders on how we can build a safer community that gives people access to mental and behavioral health services, rather than build more jails.

Andy Brown serves as the Travis County judge. Since taking office, Judge Brown has increased resources to underserved communities. He started a mass COVID-19 vaccination effort prioritizing communities of color, and directed food and water to the hardest-hit communities during the winter storm. Before taking office, Judge Brown helped create the Sobering Center as an alternative to jail for intoxicated people.

Annette Price is the co-executive director for Grassroots Leadership (GRL). GRL’s mission is to work for a more just society where prison profiteering, mass incarceration, deportation, and criminalization are things of the past. She was released from the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2005 after serving 20 years. She has been involved with reentry programs in Travis County since 2016. She holds a double master’s in professional counseling and substance abuse counseling from Grand Canyon University.

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