Getting arrested and criminally charged with public intoxication in Travis County — a common sight on Sixth Street as bars close for the night and the foundation for an entire subspecialty of legal representation — might soon be a thing of the past.
An effort by an array of criminal justice, law enforcement and medical officials is underway to open a sobriety center — “drunk tank” to many — that would effectively decriminalize public intoxication, which over the past five years has resulted in about 27,000 arrests in Austin, or about 10 percent of all arrests. As in other criminal cases, those charged with public intoxication are currently taken to jail, fingerprinted, have their mug shots taken and face future court hearings and costs.
Under a new plan, however, police would only detain intoxicated suspects and take them to the center. Offenders would face no criminal charges and would be free to leave the facility with no additional consequences after becoming sober.
Supporters have advocated for a noncriminal approach to public drunkenness in Austin for more than a decade, noting that criminally prosecuting such cases is expensive and does little long-term good.
“I think many people recognize that substance use is a problem in our community, but jail doesn’t solve that problem specifically,” said Travis County Court-at-Law Judge Nancy Hohengarten, who is helping lead the effort. “I do not see where incarcerating them has led them to quit abusing alcohol.”Grits likes the idea: Cheaper than jail and prosecution, lets police officers get back to their duties more rapidly, and reserves incarceration for more serious offenses. Houston opened a similar sobriety center last April and San Antonio has operated one since 2008, reported the Statesman, so their experience can inform the design and processes for this project. It's likely to face a NIMBY reaction when they identify a site, but the drunks are already downtown, anyway. Personally, I don't see a downside. Kudos to Judge Hohengarten for spearheading the plan.
She noted that such centers in other cities serve as a first stop for substance abuse counseling, encouraging some repeat offenders to enter into long-term sobriety programs.