Travis County leaders push for ‘diversion center’ to get people help they need, stay out of jail

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County leaders want to create a service to help people to get support and help before they interact with police, and they want to use federal dollars to make it happen.

At the press conference Tuesday, several county leaders spoke in favor of creating a “diversion center” that provides “community-based preventive services meant to help people avoid interaction with the criminal legal system.”

The money would come from the county’s $247 million it’s receiving through the American Rescue Plan Act.

“For too long we have relied on our criminal justice system as the primary structure to deliver services to the people who need them,” Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza said. “We all know it doesn’t have to be that way. We have the power to fix this.”

Garza called it a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to set up services that address not just homelessness, but unmet mental health needs and substance abuse issues before those people ever interact with law enforcement.

Garza called the Travis County Jail “one of the largest mental health providers in the county,” and people that need that help the most can’t get it until they’re arrested and put in jail. The diversion center would make it so people can get the help before being arrested, Garza said.

Tamara Needles, a district judge in Travis County, said the criminal justice system has been used as a “treatment facility” for “far too long.” She said people need to have basic needs met without having to go to jail.

“We have the opportunity to look at a holistic approach to treat not just mental health issues or substance use issues, but even the deeper root issues,” she said. “This treats every person in our community like a human, like how we want to be treated and cared for.”

Needles said the community has to “be involved, learn what’s going on and voice their opinions.”

“We need to have everyone’s input, everyone’s buy-in, so there’s not a single person in this community who goes without a roof over their head, food on their table and their mental and physical health needs met,” she said.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown said the American Rescue Plan Act would be discussed at Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting, but that there would be plenty of tie for public input on how to potentially use the money from it.

“We’re going to make sure we seek out community input for that funding,” he said.

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