North Central Austin Edition | April 2023


About 150 Travis County Jail inmates are waiting for competency resto- ration—a process in which a defen- dant with a mental health disorder is given legal education so they can understand their trial. One of these inmates has been waiting for over 420 days, according to Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin. With a diversion center, eligible individuals would not have to receive competency restoration in the first place: Those arrested for nonviolent crimes would not have to stand trial if they complete the diversion program and have their records expunged. Further, a report compiled by Dr. Ste- phen Strakowski, a professor at The Uni- versity of Texas Dell Medical School, and other members of the Forensic Mental Health Project identified that out of a sample of 2,231 arrested indi- viduals, 106 both self-reported mental illness and cycled through jail system at least three times. One individual had been arrested 89 times. Of the crimes committed by this group, 75% were misdemeanors, and over half of those were criminal trespassing. “As law enforcement, our capacity to really affect [mental health] has been affected by our inability to do anything other than to take people to jail,” Austin Police Department Chief Joseph Chacon said. Signs of success The diversion center will not be the county’s first effort to redirect those accused of a nonviolent crime from jail. The Sobering Center has provided intoxicated individuals a safe place to detox since it opened in August 2018, according to county documents. Further, mental health diversion centers in similarly populated cities have shown signs of success. Nash- ville’s center led to a 70% drop in repeated offenses since it opened in

2020, according to the report. A diversion program for those charged with second- or third-degree felonies in Miami-Dade County led to 68% fewer jail bookings and 94% fewer jail days for participants compared to those who did not participate in the program, according to the report. Taxpayer impact The mental health diversion center will cost about $30 million to build and between $2.5 million-$5 million annually to operate. The center will likely be funded through a variety of sources including federal, state, city and county dollars, Central Health--- the county’s health care district---and some private sources of funding. Aus- tin City Council approved a motion to work with the county to find financial sources and provide program recom- mendations April 13. Diversion efforts have saved tax- payers dollars in other cities, such as the Miami-Dade crisis intervention program, which diverted enough arrests between 2010-18 that the county was able to close one of its jails, saving an estimated $12 million in taxpayers dollars annually, accord- The diversion center is just one component of a five-part plan to reform the county’s jail system. To effectively address mental illness in the county, technology upgrades, bridge support housing programs and increased peer support services will need to be in place, according to the report. The county will also need to reinstate the counsel-at-first-appear- ance program, which was active for 13 days last spring and then canceled due to staffing shortages. “If it is done in isolation, nothing will change; it will just back up and be another jail,” Strakowski said. ing to the report. Long road ahead

The diversion center will cost about $30 million to build and about $2.5 million-$5 million annually to operate. Travis County Judge Andy Brown said an official cost will be known when the county decides the extent of services the facility will offer. HOW MUCH WILL THE PROJECT COST? HOW WILL THE PROJECT BE FUNDED? The project will likely be funded through a variety of sources including:

• Central Health—the county's health care district for low

• Travis County • State and federal dollars • Private sources

income residents. • The city of Austin

The diversion center will be funded through taxpayer dollars; however, officials do not know how much it will impact the tax rate at this stage. The center will be in Travis County's fiscal year 2024-25 or 2025-26 budget. WILL THE PROJECT IMPACT TAXPAYERS?


receive treatment instead of jail time, it creates safety for family members and the community as a whole, said Terra Tucker, the Texas director for the Alliance for Safety and Justice—a public safety solution organization— and steering committee member. “Breaking cycles of crime and doing prevention are things that actually make us safe, right? So we’re not just being reactionary to what’s already happened, but pre- venting new things from happening,” Tucker said. Strakowski said diversion programs also create safety for people with men- tal illness as they are often subject to violence and assault themselves. “We have an obligation to care for our citizens who can’t care for them- selves,” Strakowski said. “And we are failing in that.”

If the county successfully imple- ments all five components, it will still need to fully staff the center, which has historically been a struggle for both city and county law enforcement. Quiana Fisher, the homelessness response system strategy director for the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, added that to be effective, the diversion center will need staff who can adequately provide mental health resources to people experienc- ing homelessness and Black residents as Black people have historically been underserved in mental health systems. “We have to do this with the ser- vice providers that have proven to best serve the most impacted and that we’re doing that with a racial equity lens and challenging some of the assumptions that all of our sys- tems make in surveying the Black communities,” Fisher said. A safer county When people with mental illness

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