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Travis County Commissioners Delay Key Vote On $79 Million Women's Jail

An image of the Travis County Correctional Complex
Michael Minasi
Travis County commissioners on Tuesday postponed a key vote on the construction of a new women's jail.

Travis County commissioners have postponed a crucial decision on a new women’s jail.

County commissioners were set to vote Tuesday on the design contract for the $79 million jail, but delayed at the request of Travis County Judge Andy Brown.

Criminal justice advocates have pushed back against the project, arguing the effort to build the women’s-only jail was based on projections that forecast an increase in inmates, which hasn't played out. Activists are calling on the county to use the money to better study the drivers of incarceration and support programs that provide alternatives.

They also argue the process has been rushed, a claim Precinct 2 Commissioner Brigid Shea took issue with. The project was slated to come up for a vote in 2018, but commissioners held off and sought more community input.

Shea said she understood activists' concerns, but the county has a responsibility to take care of the people accused of crimes who are in its custody.

"I’m very appreciative of a lot of what the advocates have done, but at the end of the day we have an unpleasant and unpopular responsibility to maintain the jails," she said. "We on the court don’t say who’s in the jails. That happens through the judges and the court system. But once they’re there, we have a responsibility to maintain the jails."

The plan was OK'd by a previous iteration of the commissioners court. Commissioners Shea, Jeff Travillion and Margaret Gómez supported the project then.

The jail is included in a two-decade-long plan to renovate the criminal justice system, which was recommended by a study in 2016. Opponents argue the recommendation was based on projections of the jail population that didn't pan out.

The study projected the average daily jail population would be above 2,500 by 2020 and urged the county to increase the number of beds to keep pace. There were just over 1,400 people in Travis County jails as of Tuesday, according to the county — well short of that projection.

Brown campaigned against the jailin the lead-up to his election last year. In an op-ed published in the Austin Chronicle on Friday, he said money should instead be invested in "needed mental and behavioral health services and housing outside of the jail."

Gómez, Brown and Commissioner Ann Howard voted in favor of postponing. Shea voted against it and Travillion abstained.

Commissioners will take up the contract next week.

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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Corrected: June 9, 2021 at 9:38 AM CDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how some Travis County commissioners voted on whether to delay a vote Tuesday on the women's jail project. Brigid Shea voted in favor of the delay, Margaret Gómez against it and Jeff Travillion abstained.
Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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