Mental health diversion programs part of solution downtown Austin safer, Travis County attorney says

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Providing more social services and mental health diversion programs are essential to public safety, county attorney Delia Garza said Monday in a public safety forum.

Garza made the comments at the forum, hosted by the Downtown Austin Alliance and Austin City Council member Kathie Tovo, in a discussion on how to help people who commit nonviolent crimes that aren’t necessarily going to be prosecuted by the district or county attorney’s office. She said the diversion programs are critical in keeping people out of jail and from recirculating back into the criminal justice system.

“When our Travis County Jail is the biggest provider of mental health services, we have really gone in the wrong direction,” Garza said. “We need somewhere else to provide an environment for people to get true help.”

Specifically to business owners, criminal trespassing and keeping unwanted people off their property is of utmost importance. Garza said expanding services, like the ones provided by Mobile Loaves and Fishes as an example, would go a long way in getting basic needs met for offenders and keeping them out of the cycle they often fall into.

“I think if we can expand those types of services, our business owners would see a tremendous change in the situations they are seeing,” Garza said.

Interim Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon said police are in support of a stronger focus on the diversion center model.

“Most business owners are like ‘I really don’t want this person to go to jail, but I just don’t want them here.’ Officers have nowhere to take them. I think it would be good for our community,” Chacon said.

Chacon emphasized that he believes Austin is an “incredibly” safe community, but that police are seeing increases in crime activity.

Chacon says the department is actively moving resources to address violent crime, moving people back to patrol to help with response times on violent offenses.

“It’s important for any community that we have to partner with that community. A community that’s going to call when they see something or if they have knowledge…about this particular crime. I’m going to continue to ask the community to do that,” Chacon said.

Travis County District Attorney José Garza added that the City must address violent crime, but also find solutions to prevent violence.

“Of course, we must hold people accountable when they commit acts of violence, but, if we are serious about addressing crime long term and reducing the incidents of violent crime in our community, we must also invest in solutions that increase stability in our community and prevent crime. Not just punishing people who are engaged in crimes,” Garza said.

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