AUSTIN (KXAN) — After years in the making, the advocates and city officials who worked to establish a sobriety center in downtown Austin are finally speaking about the lengths it took to turn the idea into a reality.
A longtime proponent of the sobriety center, Travis County Judge Nancy Hohengarten, says this moment is probably one of the best things that has happened in her career as a criminal court judge. “I’m excited because the county and city stepped up to the plate and acknowledged the importance of looking at things differently and being innovative in how we address the needs of our community,” says Hohengarten.
Hohengarten has seen people come in and out of her courtroom and she knows that jailing people for public intoxication is not the answer. “The sobriety center is one of those efforts that helps to divert people from the criminal justice system, and from jail, into a more appropriate place.”
The Austin Police Department says the sobriety center would help decrease the amount of people sent to jail or to the emergency room for public intoxication. The whole process of booking someone or taking them to the hospital could take an officer off the streets for hours; whereas dropping the person off at a sobriety center would mean a quick turnaround for the officer—which is imperative when it comes to maximizing the number of officers the city has.
“One of the reasons we partnered with this program was to look at limited resources,” says APD Assistant Chief Justin Dusterhoff. “Obviously with 170 officers short, we have to take every time-saving we can get to put officers for 911 calls, proactive policing. Now, instead of spending four hours [working with a public intoxication suspect], they’re back down by bar closing and they’re actually able to stop someone from getting in their car and driving.”
Once the center opens, Dusterhoff says it doesn’t mean the city is decriminalizing intoxication, “You will still not be able to come to Austin and sleep it off.” If the suspect is combative or is on drugs, they will not be taken to the center.
Bill Brice with the Downtown Austin Alliance says he couldn’t agree more that getting officers back on the streets as quickly as possible is critical for the downtown corridor.
While Brice has been working on this project for the past 12 years, Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was a bit of a harder sell.
“Let me assure the public that I will not be doing this if this were just some social program,” explains Daugherty. “We have the opportunity to find some real cost savings with this program being put in place.”
The idea of the center really came into focus when it was announced that the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office was moving out of its location at 1213 Sabine St., freeing the building up for something else, like the sobriety center. Judge Hohengarten says while the building will need to be retrofitted for the center, it was an ideal location because there was already a secure entrance and plenty of space.
Once operational at the end of 2017, the center will house approximately 40 beds and have a full administrative staff. In the meantime, a nine-member board of directors will be in charge of implenting plans and processes for the new center.
Police say last year approximately 3,000 people were arrested for public intoxication. In a report published by the Sobriety Center Planning Committee in 2015, they estimate that from 2008-2014, 76 percent of people arrested for public intoxication in Travis County would be eligible clients for the sobriety center.