Travis County Commissioners Ponder Drunk-Tank Proposal

May 6, 2015

From the Austin Monitor:

The Travis County Commissioners Court took another tentative step toward establishing a sobriety center in partnership with the City of Austin at its regular voting session. Perhaps better known colloquially as a drunk tank, the proposed sobriety center would serve as an alternative to Travis County Jail or local emergency rooms as destinations for people detained for public intoxication.

On Tuesday, the commissioners voted 4-0 to direct the brain trust behind the effort to come up with specific proposals for the center’s governance that the county and city can then consider. Commissioner Ron Davis abstained from the vote, citing unanswered questions about the exact role the city would play in the center’s establishment and operation.

Before the vote, members of the Austin-Travis County Sobriety Center Committee presented to the commissioners their formal implementation study, published last week. The panel included attorney Andy Brown; Roger Jefferies, the head of the county Criminal Justice Planning Department; Jason Dusterhoft, assistant chief of the Austin Police Department; Travis County Court of Law 5 Judge Nancy Hohengarten; and Seton Healthcare Family’s Ashton Cumberbatch. The same committee briefed City Council members Monday at the Health and Human Services Committee and the Public Safety Commission.

The report calls for a sobriety center that provides a safe place for people to sober up as well as medical screenings and referral services for addiction treatment. It also estimates that 27 full-time employees would staff the center for a projected annual cost of $1.3 million.

“I think the cost of inaction is actually higher,” Brown told the commissioners. “And the million dollars that we spend either in misutilized resources or in actual dollars is something that this sobriety center could really make a difference in.”

Dusterhoft said that APD was initially worried that a sobriety center could, in effect, decriminalize public intoxication. But he added that the committee had put together a solid recommendation. He said that a public intoxication arrest, a class C misdemeanor, could take an officer off the streets for up to three hours at a time.

“I think, and a lot of officers think, that time could be better spent being back on the roads, especially late at night when you have DWIs out there and everything else,” Dusterhoft said.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty questioned whether removing the threat of jail time for public intoxication would in turn remove a deterrent against excessive drinking.

“We definitely don’t want to present any kind of view that you can come to Austin, get drunk and sleep it off,” Dusterhoft responded. “We believe in consequences for your actions. We believe in holding people accountable for their actions.”

Daugherty said he felt reassured by that but still thinks people who use the sobriety center should in some way pay for it to help cover the cost of operations. Hohengarten suggested that city attorneys should be included in that discussion since they are involved with litigating misdemeanor citations. She also suggested looking toward businesses that profit from alcohol sales as a possible revenue source.

“There are a lot of folks that are making a lot of money on Sixth Street selling alcohol and knowingly providing alcohol to folks that are already intoxicated,” Hohengarten said. “Perhaps that entertainment district needs to take some responsibility, too.”

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt agreed with that idea. She noted that Travis County collected $2.5 million in alcohol sales taxes in just the first quarter of 2015.

“So $1.3 million annually (to pay for the sobriety center staffing), compared to $2.5 million quarterly. I think that this community can afford to pay for this innovation,” Eckhardt said.

Aside from funding, major details such as the center’s location and who would run it remain uncertain. One likely scenario for the latter could be handing the reins to a nonprofit created by both Travis County and the City of Austin. Those details remain to be ironed out for the final proposal.

Before Tuesday’s vote, Davis reminded his colleagues of the uncertain future of the county’s central booking unit. City officials have expressed interest in building a separate city-run magistration facility, and Davis said he wanted more information on the status of that proposal before committing to collaborating with the city on the sobriety center.

“It’s like a marriage and a divorce all at the same time,” Davis said, explaining why he was abstaining from the vote.

Along with nudging the sobriety center proposal forward, the commissioners also voted to give the committee a one-month deadline to return with its new proposals.