Let’s take a closer look at who is in the Travis County jail, why, and at what cost.If you ever needed evidence that jails are full because we've criminalized our social problems, these data should refute any doubt.
- 36.5% are in jail for violent offenses (including misdemeanor assault)
- 27.2% are in jail for drug offenses
- 19.9% are in jail for alcohol related offenses (DWI, public intoxication)
- 15-20% have a mental health diagnosis
- 45.4% report not having completed the 12th grade
- 6.84% report being unemployed (with 62.4% of the employment unknown or unreported)
- The daily cost of incarceration per inmate is $22.75 per day
- 34.5% are re-arrested on new charges within two years
We can keep these people out of jail by investing in treatment and social programs that will provide the offender the highest probabilities for success upon release by avoiding the behaviors and circumstances that lead to incarceration. In Travis County we are employing some of the most progressive programs for diverting offenders away from incarceration and into treatment. Below is a description of some of the programs offered by the Sheriff’s Office and by Probation and Pre-trial Services. In addition to programs listed below, we are seeing jail diversion efforts in criminal courts and among social service and educational providers. These programs represent a start, but we must monitor their effectiveness and continually evaluate our strategy to reduce the need for incarceration.
Among our jail population 36.5% are in jail for violent offenses. To address the violent behaviors of these offenders while in jail the County has developed the Resolve to Abolish Violence Everywhere or RAVE program as well as the Sheriff’s Assault Prevention Program (SAPP). RAVE provides pre and post-release counseling and post-release support for violent offenders. SAPP provides classes examining the concept of anger and associated destructive behaviors. In addition, a number of batterers intervention programs are available to the accused that are out on bond awaiting trial.
Among our jail population 47.1% are in jail for drug or alcohol related offenses. To address substance addiction the County provides Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous inside the jail. The SMART program provides Cognitive Rehabilitation classes. The Beat the Streets Relapse Prevention program seeks to educate and prepare the addicted for the challenges they are likely to face when they return to their communities. The Winner Circle Peer Support Network teaches participants skills for recovery, avoiding future criminal behavior and establishing healthier relationships. Further, Probation and Pre-trial Services has an extensive list of drug and alcohol counseling options available to the accused that are out on bond awaiting trial. In addition, after identifying supportive neighborhoods, the County will provide neighborhood-based day treatment for non-violent drug and alcohol offenders.
Among our jail population as many as 20% have been diagnosed with mental illness. As a society, we must move away from the implicit connection between mental illness and criminality. The correctional system is not the appropriate venue for treating all mentally ill patients who have nowhere else to go. But, for those who have become a threat to public safety, the Travis County Jail competently provides medication, treatment and housing until a more appropriate setting can be identified. Often a more appropriate setting never becomes available. To address the needs of the mentally ill while in jail, the Sheriff’s Office provides Jail Resource Groups and Mental Health Treatment Groups conducted by TCSO counselors. These counselors provide the inmates with help adjusting to jail, dealing with stress and anxiety, and identifying resources in the community to contact upon release. Peer Support Groups provide designated inmate peers to support and actively listen to inmates expressing suicidal thoughts.
Among our jail population 45.4% did not complete high school. To address this lack, GED orientation and testing is provided within the jail introducing those interested to the Austin Community College options for continuing education. GED preparation courses are offered. Special Education is provided by Del Valle School District for high school level subjects. Tutoring by community volunteers and by incarcerated peers is also available. And, Austin Community College offers English as a Second Language courses within the jail.
Among our jail population the level of unemployed or underemployment is unknown but assumed to be substantial. Although more than half of our jail population’s employment status is unknown or unreported, federal statistics from 2002 indicate that 59% of jail inmates have a personal income of $1,000 per month or less, that 30% are unemployed and that 14% were homeless in the past year. Travis County provides a telephone job matching services and on-site job fairs to inmates while in jail. TCSO provides Getting Connected, a class in which inmates receive information about jobs, housing, and financial assistance available from the Travis County Health and Human Services Department. Job Readiness classes are also available to provide information on looking for, finding and maintaining employment. A Money Management class is available to teach the basic concepts of budgeting, banking and borrowing.
In addition to the above programs, TCSO offers cognitive therapy, spiritual groups, meditation, and art programs. There are also programs specifically addressing pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDs and other infectious diseases, and parenting. Programs also exist to target the distinct needs of and identify resources for veterans.
Jailing 1 in every 83 of our neighbors is a failure of our community. We must find better ways to improve the safety and security for all of our citizens. First we must get a clear idea of who is re-offending and how. Next, we have to weigh the costs and benefits of various programs in reducing repeat offenses. Travis County is establishing definitions for recidivism and beginning to track recidivism rates for the jail population generally and for the participants of the various programs offered. We already know with statistical certainty that drug and alcohol treatment decreases the likelihood of a return trip to jail; now, we must overcome neighborhood resistance to community based drug and alcohol treatment centers. We already know with statistical certainty that appropriate health care for the mentally ill reduces the likelihood of a trip to jail; now we must make the funding commitment to provide the mental health care that is so desperately needed in this community. Common sense and statistics from other jurisdictions tell us that educated and employed individuals are less likely to be incarcerated. Consequently, the school districts and community colleges as well as the major employers and chambers of commerce must do better at achieving a fully educated and employed citizenry. We must not look away. Paraphrasing the popular gospel song, “When one of us is chained none of us are free.”
What you can do:
• Support neighborhood-based drug and alcohol treatment
• Demand medical attention for the chemically dependent and the mentally ill
• Insist on educating all
• Hire a felon
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Eckhardt: 'Jailing 1 in every 83 of our neighbors is a failure of our community'
Drug and alcohol offenders and the mentally ill dominate the Travis County Jail population, according to an essay by Travis County Commissioner Sara Eckhardt titled "Criminal Justice and the Least Among Us" in her quarterly newsletter to constituents (pdf). The commissioner provides a snapshot demonstrating how the Travis jail is being used mostly to combat social problems like addiction and mental illness. She writes: