While Austin has implemented specific programs to address minor marijuana possession offenses (effective January 2018), driving with a suspended license (June 2018), and state jail felony-level drug and property offenses (June 2018), it is in dire need of a pre-arrest diversion program, but it lacks services and resources for people who would be eligible. However, the District Attorney and law enforcement leadership have expressed interest in alternatives to arrest and incarceration.
To lay out our vision for reform, TCJE released a short report in 2018, A Public Health Approach to Illicit Drug Use in Travis County. It calls for investments in the treatment infrastructure, investments in harm reduction and outreach, improved recovery-oriented community supports, and a reoriented response of various actors – law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, and probation officers – from incarceration to community-based diversion.
In June 2018, Austin passed the “Freedom City Policy,” which, among other things, will prevent arrests for minor marijuana possession, driving with a suspended license, city ordinance violations (including related to homelessness), and other low-level offenses. Two months later, Austin/Travis County opened its Sobering Center, intended to divert people from jail for public intoxication charges; over the course of its first year, it served approximately 2,000 people.
While these are clear wins, advocates have continued pushing for deeper reforms and a more comprehensive pre-arrest diversion approach. For instance, TCJE transitioned our Public Health Approach publication into a shared document that various groups amended and signed on to. (Our document also informed statewide recommendations to the Texas House Select Committee on Opioids & Substance Use Disorder.) We continued to push our recommendations locally – especially critical during an August 2018 county budget hearing, when the women’s jail was re-proposed in the budget.