Thursday, March 01, 2012

The legacy of Otis Campbell and Houston's proposed 'sobering center'

Following up on a suggestion from Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos, Houston officials plan to create a "sobering center," reports the Houston Chronicle's Chris Moran ("Houston plans 'sobering center' at shelter instead of jail," Feb. 29), where police can take drunks instead of booking them into jail. The story opens:
City officials plan to open a "sobering center" at the Star of Hope Mission downtown later this year. It would be an 84-bed facility that would allow people whose only offense is being drunk to bypass jail.

Houston police arrest 19,000 people a year for public intoxication, racking up $4 million to $6 million in jail costs. A sobering center aims to divert drunks from jail and free up cells for more dangerous offenders. Dropping off a person at the center, instead of booking him into jail, also would let officers to return to patrol more quickly.

A person brought to the sobering center would have to stay at least four hours, until he sobers up, and would not have an arrest put on his record.

"Jail should be for violent people that we need to get off the street," not a place to merely sober up, said Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former city police officer who has championed the sobering center idea.

The center also may do a better job than jail at addressing chronic substance abusers, Gonzalez said.
"I don't think jail is a deterrent" to chronic abuse, he said. "They consume or abuse because they have abuse issues. Punishment isn't a substantial stick anymore."
In a statement, Mayor Annise Parker declared that "Incarcerating individuals whose only criminal behavior is public intoxication diverts law enforcement from more serious or life-threatening crimes," adding that "Sobering centers in other cities have proven to be time savers for patrol officers, allowing them to quickly return to their assigned duties to deal with more serious crimes."

When Lykos first suggested the idea, Grits quipped that "In my mind's eye, I think they should call it the Otis Campbell Detox Center," comparing the tactic to "giving Mayberry's town drunk a safe place to dry out."

Every effort to divert low-level cases from the justice system is a worthy experiment, in this writer's view, but it remains to be seen how well the idea works in practice, whether HPD uses it, not to mention what criteria will be used to decide that the "sobering center" is more appropriate than the jail. For homeless frequent flyers in particular I can see it becoming a tremendous boon. And it's good to see city leaders spending on diversion programs first instead of automatically sinking more money into the city jail. According to Moran, "The city stands to save millions a year if it can offload a substantial portion of its public drunkenness cases to a facility where the detainees do not have to be fed nor as closely monitored as they would be in jail."

Kuff points to a press release on the topic, adding that "The city jails, and ways to reduce costs on them, were a subject of the Mayor’s inaugural speech." More from Hair Balls.


Anonymous said...

Just wonder if Harris County and Harris County Jail are supporting this or if they will be following suit in an attempt to keep jail population down?

Anonymous said...

I wonder about the legality of taking someone into custody...and then taking them some place unofficial. Grits, I'm not sure you've thought through (down?) the slippery slope of this kind of "diversion." What's next -- a cage behind the police station where batterers can "cool off"? A dark hole in the ground where sex offenders can "get lost"?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:38, it wouldn't be "unofficial," it's a city-financed pretrial diversion program. Keep in mind, these are folks who're otherwise going to jail and face misdemeanor criminal charges - which do you think they'd prefer?

I do agree, though, I've not thought the idea completely though, which is why I wrote that this is a "worthy experiment ... but it remains to be seen how well the idea works in practice." And I'll be interested to learn the criteria for who will be eligible for diversion.

The devil is always in the details, but I'm glad to see somebody look at an issue like "We arrest 19,000 people per year for public intoxication" and for once propose a non-jail alternative that results (theoretically) in fewer criminal charges. IMO it's worth a shot.

Anonymous said...

For the city official to say "do not have to be fed nor as closely monitored as they would be in jail" is simply an amazing statement to me.

What are the elements of Public Intoxication? A person commits an offense if the person appears in a public place while intoxicated to the degree that the person may ENDANGER THE PERSON OR ANOTHER.

Why do the terms "vicarious liability" and "deliberate indifference" jump out at me? Your right, you ain't thought this one out.

sunray's wench said...

If someone's only "offence" is to be drunk, then maybe the police should just take them home if they live within city limits for example?

Anonymous said...

Oh my bad, he's not a city official but still an incredible statement to make.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

sunray's wench, that would make far too much sense. ;)

That said, I suspect that a large category of folks who end up at the "sobering center" may be a small but significant cohort of homeless frequent flyers who're constantly in and out of the jail, so just taking someone home isn't always an option if they don't have one.

doran said...

Can't help but wonder how many off-duty, intoxicated LEOs, if any, might spend some time in the SobCen.

[Grits, it is getting real difficult for at least one of your geriatric readers to read those words in your robot filter.]

Anonymous said...

This is a great attempt to think outside the bars, er box I mean.

Even without fleshing out the details the Harris County folks should be praised for acknowledgeing that locking up everyone in sight is not a panacea.

Anonymous said...

@ Sunray....too many areas for potential liability.

Anonymous said...

Why do the terms "vicarious liability" and "deliberate indifference" jump out at me? Your right, you ain't thought this one out.

First--stop trying to be such a dick.

Second, it has been thought through by others. Not every drunk is going here--if you're a danger to others you're going to jail. To make sure you're not a danger to yourself, you'll be treated at intake--just like at jail.

And of you think that a cop will look at a drunk guy and say "well, he's not a danger to himself or to someone else, so I'm not going to arrest him..." you're flat-out wrong. They arrest people and could care less about whether their behavior fits the standard.

Anyway, it's a good idea and will save millions in your tax dollars (assuming you pay any). So you should appreciate that at least someone in government has put their budget where their mouth is.


Anonymous said...

Great idea. But, can't help but wonder how many will truly seek the help they need.

Will they really be assessed to see what level of care they need? What if they could care less about receiving help? What is they would prefer to dry out at the Jail?

The idea of treatment is always a good idea, but ...

Many of these offenders will prefer to be left alone.

Many of these offenders are frequent flyers, and will welcome something different from jail, but will it really be all that different from jail. 4 hours of detox? If you meet criteria for alcohol dependence, much more than 4 hours of detox is needed.

This isn't a treatment center. It is a drying out Center, which could be dangerous. Even if the defendant is detoxed safely over a period of 3-7 days (not 4 hours), that isn't treatment. What if the defendant doesn't want treatment, and what if this place becomes a revolving door type situation, will the staff always treat the returning customer the same every time?

What will the salary be for the staff? Will they be seasoned professionals, or will they be Counselor Interns? Will there be ludicrous turnover of staff? I doubt the Salary will be all that desirable.

If they truly are homeless, then they need housing, they may be given a referral, but will they have shelter in the end?

It costs to deliver the service needed. I get the comparison, but Otis is a TV character. Without proper medical supervision, people can die. It sounds like there will be proper supervision, but it also sounds like those receiving the service (the drunk) may not really receive the service they need, meaning many of them need treatment, but what they need and what they want are two different things.

There still has to be a booking process. Will LEO really treat these people differently, just because they are drunk in Houston?

Too many questions, but it is worth a try because it is true the jails are full of people not needing to be there and are taking up space for those that really need to be there.

Who really needs to be incarcerated? People we are afraid of, that's who. But we can't even agree who we are afraid of, can we?