Sober up

This seems like a sensible idea.

City officials plan to open a “sobering center” at the Star of Hope Mission downtown later this year. It would be an 84-bed facility that would allow people whose only offense is being drunk to bypass jail.

Houston police arrest 19,000 people a year for public intoxication, racking up $4 million to $6 million in jail costs. A sobering center aims to divert drunks from jail and free up cells for more dangerous offenders. Dropping off a person at the center, instead of booking him into jail, also would let officers t return to patrol more quickly.

A person brought to the sobering center would have to stay at least four hours, until he sobers up, and would not have an arrest put on his record.

“Jail should be for violent people that we need to get off the street,” not a place to merely sober up, said Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former city police officer who has championed the sobering center idea.


Under the plan, the city would pay Star of Hope $1.5 million a year to lease and staff a two-story warehouse behind the Star of Hope’s Ruiz Street men’s shelter by the Eastex Freeway, north of Minute Maid Park.

The Houston Police Department would move its mental health unit to the center. The city would finance the $3 million needed to convert the warehouse, currently used to store donations, into a shelter and offices with voter-approved public safety bonds.

The city spends about $25 million a year to run two jails. The city stands to save millions a year if it can offload a substantial portion of its public drunkenness cases to a facility where the detainees do not have to be fed nor as closely monitored as they would be in jail.

Here’s a press release on this. The city jails, and ways to reduce costs on them, were a subject of the Mayor’s inaugural speech. These people are generally only a danger to themselves, so dealing with them in a way that is more humane and less expensive makes all kinds of sense. There are details to be worked out – liability, what to do with someone who refuses to go or becomes belligerant, and so forth – but the idea of de-criminalizing things that are more nuisance than menace is sound, and will hopefully bring the city one step closer to getting out of the jail business. Hair Balls has more.

UPDATE: Grits has more.

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