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Travis County Commissioners Court approves next step for new diversion center

Travis County commissioners unanimously approved a resolution that directs staff to find locations and funding for a new Central Booking and Diversion Center.

AUSTIN, Texas — Travis County leaders took a step toward getting more people mental health assistance on Tuesday.

The Travis County Commissioners Court unanimously approved a resolution that directs staff to find locations and funding for a new Central Booking and Diversion Center.

As the KVUE Defenders reported in February, the goal for the new center is to prevent people from going to jail and instead get them the psychiatric help they need.

KVUE Defenders Reporter Jenni Lee spoke with one mother who said while the diversion center is a good idea, more needs to be done for the severely and chronically mentally ill in the Central Texas area.

Pictures of Patricia Pickles' two children remind her of a happier time, before her son developed a mental illness in his teens.

"He was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic," Pickles said.

Pickles said her now 43-year-old son, Alex, has been arrested and has been in and out of the Travis County Jail dozens of times.

"I'm going to say 40," Pickles said.

She said her son was arrested for misdemeanor offenses like criminal trespass and evading arrest – and his case mirrors so many others.

According to data released from a group of Dell Medical School mental health experts, there were 106 people – who had between three to 89 arrests – cycling in and out of the Travis County Jail between 2018 and 2022. All were identified as having mental health issues. 

The group of experts, hired by Travis County commissioners in April of last year, also found that 75% of those arrests were misdemeanors.

"People in Travis County that are living with mental health and substance abuse disorders too often land in our jail," Travis County Judge Andy Brown said.

In February, Brown and Lee visited Central Booking to see how initial mental health assessments are made. Central Booking is located inside the Travis County Jail in Downtown Austin.

Brown said the facility is too small for the jail staff to evaluate arrestees and maintain privacy at the same time. 

Before the region votes, KVUE heard from several community stakeholders, including Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon, who shared his support for a diversion center.

"We know we are not going to arrest our way out of these issues," Chacon told the commissioners court.

Besides recommending a new diversion center, the group of mental health experts also made other suggestions like modernizing the County's technology platform, establishing data-use agreements and piloting at least three housing programs while establishing permanent housing solutions.

For Pickles, it's not enough. Housing and continued care for the severely and chronically mentally ill, like her son, are key for her.

"I think that this is an excellent first step because mental illness is not a crime," Pickles said.

Pickles only wishes a diversion center was around before her son became part of the criminal justice system.

County staff now has 180 days to come up with funding options for a new Central Booking and Diversion Center.

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