In the past five years, 27,000 people have been arrested in Austin, Texas, for the offense known as “public intoxication,” making up a whopping ten percent of all arrests. By the accounts of those on the ground, these laws have been targeted at minorities and gays in at least several prominent instances, with cops seeking out bars with particular demographics in the early morning hours to snag those who have had a few drinks.
They don’t have to implement a Breathalyzer or field sobriety test. They don’t have to have suspicion for hanging out outside particular bars. They just have to be based on a police officer suspicion.
A 27-year-veteran of the Dallas Police Department commented to Mother Jones in 2010 that, while individuals have been outraged by reported incidents of targeting gays and minorities, no one would move to reform the underlying law “[a]s long as police are going out there fucking with the blacks and the Mexicans,” and not the “people with power.”
But as we have seen around the country in recent years, there is another motivation for criminal justice reforms like this: money. The arrest, jailing, and public defense of these “public intoxicants” by city police is costing county officials money, and they don’t like it.
So they are calling for the creation of what is known as a “sobriety center” where individuals deemed publicly intoxicated would be sent to dry out instead of being funneled into the criminal justice system.
According to the Austin American-Statesman, this initiative to create what are colloquially known as “drunk tanks” would “effectively decriminalize” public intoxication, although it’s not clear whether that’s true, since police would seemingly retain the discretion to decide how to handle each case. Similar centers already exist in San Antonio and Houston, where arrests have reportedly dropped precipitously. And they are also common in other cities around the country including Boise, Denver, and San Francisco.
The number of arrests has already dropped significantly from its peak over the past two years, after Austin’s police chief ordered his deputies to focus on charging individuals who have also allegedly committed other crimes. But there are still a dozen arrests a day on average, according to the Austin-Statesman.
A resolution calling for the sobriety center from the Travis County Commissioners Court laments that while the Austin Police Department made the majority of the arrests, the Travis County jail holds these individuals at a cost of $96.71 per day, and the Travis County courts were required to appoint public attorneys to represent many of these individuals charged with public intoxication. The resolution also notes that emergency rooms are often used for intoxicated individuals at excessive cost, and detracting resources from those who need emergency medical attention.
The move for Austin sobriety centers comes as the conservative movement for criminal justice reform got some extra attention, thanks to panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that included Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R). “We are not a soft on crime state, but I hope we get the reputation of being a smart on crime state,” Perry said. “We shut a prison down last year. That is the message all across this country. You want to talk about real conservative governance, shut a prison down.”