On Thursday, the Travis County Commissioners Court convened a working
group meeting to receive the findings of a feasibility study regarding
the potential combination of a criminal justice/mental health diversion
program with the Austin-Travis County Sobering Center. The county
commissioned the study to ascertain whether saving costs on the
diversion program by coupling it with existing county resources would be
realistic and attainable.
Commissioners had directed the study in June, in response to public
outcry over a proposed costly expansion of the women’s jail. Around the
same time, commissioners additionally recommended that those charged
with non-violent criminal trespassing be considered for a pilot study as
one potential diversion population.
“This phase is intended to answer the question: Can we do this at the
Sobering Center? Can we have a diversion project at the Sobering
Center?” said Sherri Fleming, a county executive with Health and Human
County employees corresponded with relevant stakeholders to evaluate
the strengths and weaknesses of the possible joint diversion program.
The stakeholders listed by Fleming were the board and staff members of
the Sobering Center, as well as direct service providers.
The study, carried out by county HHS and Justice Planning, also
examined and analyzed criminal trespass data at the direction of
“The five main research initiatives are criminal justice trespass
data analysis, criminal trespass affidavit, review, a survey on client
needs with a criminal trespass charge, a data presentation and
facilitated session with the Sobering Center’s board and staff, and a
focus group with providers,” Fleming explained to commissioners.
Roughly half of those booked for criminal trespassing in 2020
received mental health services during their time, according to the
findings. Additionally, the study found that criminal trespass charges
have increased (1,439 in 2020), despite a decrease in the overall number
Commissioner Jeffrey Travillion asked about which types of criminal
trespassers would be able to qualify for diversion at the Sobering
Center, if the program were implemented.
“Is that breaking in someone’s house? Is that breaking in someone’s
car? I imagine that there is not an element of assault involved and
there’s not an element of a weapon being used. But what types of
offenses are we talking about when we say criminal trespass?” Travillion
“We were making a very clear distinction for the purposes of a pilot,
only look at people who are not charged with any violent offenses,”
said Commissioner Brigid Shea. “It was based on conversations with a
number of the judges who’ve been dealing a lot with the homeless
population and some conversations with the head of the Sobering Center.”
A county attorney present clarified that the constituents for the
program would have committed “misdemeanor Bs,” which relate to
trespassing on property that is not a home. “It definitely does not
involve an assaultive offense or include an actual assault, which is a
different section in the penal code,” said Jennifer Kraber, a county
The next stage of the study will likely include information on a
formal budget and implementation procedures, according to Fleming.