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Houston Recovery Center

Ground broken on the joint processing center

Good.

The majority of suspects arrested by Houston police get booked at one of two city jails, and within 48 hours they are transferred and booked in all over again at the Harris County Jail.

Two years from now, officials say, this duplication will be a thing of the past. The central and southeast police lockups will close, freeing up 100 police officers who were assigned to jail duty. And individuals arrested by city or county law enforcement will enter one building where they will be booked into one unified system and be able to tap into various services based on their needs.

For years, local officials have been trying to drum up support for a joint city-county processing center, a model that has existed for decades in Travis County and elsewhere around the country. On Tuesday, they broke ground – at what is now a parking lot across from the Baker Street Jail – on a 246,000 square foot facility to be built with $70 million in county and $30 million in city bonds.

The Joint Processing Center promises to save money, eliminate duplication of tasks and speed up processing. Through a centralized process, a person who needs detox, dialysis or psychotropic medication will be steered in that direction at the start. This plan takes into consideration both the fact that the majority of incoming suspects are held for a short time and that the Harris County Jail treats more mental health patients than any facility in the state.

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One goal of the center is to better manage and care for the so-called frequent fliers, many of whom have a confirmed mental health diagnosis and may be homeless, who revolve in and out of the jails on low-level offenses, sometimes without the chance to connect with a social worker or a psychiatrist who could prescribemedicine.

County Judge Ed Emmett said once the jail facility is in place, it should offer an alternative for “people who are not criminals, they are mental health patients.”

Mayor Annise Parker said the new center will save the city $4 million a year in elimination of redundant processes.

“We have been laboring in an old and outmoded system, with old and outmoded jails, for a number of years,” said Parker. “The plans for this have been dusted off five or six times. For whatever reason, we don’t finish the conversation to get to a resolution and a contract agreement. Well, we finally made it to the finish line” she said Tuesday, through cooperation of a number of city and county agencies.

See here, here, and here for the background. Voters approved funds for this in 2013, so it’s good to see it finally get off the ground. I expect it will make a big difference in how the system works.

Council approves inmate processing center deal with Harris County

Very good news.

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An end is in sight for the inefficient process of shuttling prisoners in and out of redundant local lockups after the City Council on Wednesday approved an agreement with Harris County to build a long-discussed inmate processing center.

Public officials have discussed the need for a new booking center since the 1990s, because the current facility in the county jail tends to be over capacity even when the jail population is low and booking processes are inefficient. Roughly half the inmates booked into city jails also face state charges; they end up transferred to the county jail, where they are booked again.

City leaders have been enthusiastic backers of the processing center, knowing a larger booking facility will allow them to realize a longtime goal of shuttering the two aging municipal jails. Most big Texas cities closed their jails long ago, as these facilities typically only hold those arrested for low-level misdemeanors, usually for no more than 48 hours.

“The sooner we can get out of the jail business, the better,” said Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former police officer who chairs the council’s public safety committee. “This will be a cost savings for us. It’s been a long time coming.”

The city and county committed a combined $9 million to design the center a year ago, and they are approving their shares of the $91 million needed to build the 238,000-square-foot, three-story facility. The building will hold 552 beds, along with offices, interview rooms, DUI processing areas, evidence lockers, lineup rooms, a clinic and courtrooms.

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City voters in 2007 approved $32 million in bonds to build what would have been a larger, 2,500-bed processing center, but county voters that year rejected a $195 million bond issue for the same purpose. Presented again with a $70 million bond issue for the current, scaled-back proposal in 2013, county voters said yes.

The city’s ultimate contribution to the facility’s construction, barring any cost overruns, will be $27.3 million. Some of the other 2007 bond dollars were used to open the Houston Recovery Center, which diverts intoxicated prisoners from jail and pairs addicts with social services. That center has reduced the population of city jails and is expected to do the same at the processing center.

The facility, scheduled to break ground next month at the northeast corner of San Jacinto and Baker streets, will connect to the county jail via a tunnel.

Construction of the joint processing center was approved to begin last June, after both Harris County and the city approved finding an architect in 2013. The sobering center was opened earlier in 2013. Once this new facility opens in 2017, the city will spend more than $4 million less per year on handling inmates, and will free up about 100 cops now working at the city jail to do other things. The new facility will also have mental health treatment services, which will hopefully enable more people to get the help they need and keep them out of jail in the future. All in all, a very positive step forward.

Ballot order drawn

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Here is the official ballot order for City of Houston candidates this November, via Chron reporter Mike Morris on Twitter. You’re all familiar with my rant about ballot order by now – we have electronic voting machines, they should simply randomize the ballot order for each voter – so I’ll just skip it and move on. Whether anyone’s ballot position ultimately makes a difference or not – I sure hope it doesn’t, but I wouldn’t bet on it – we’ll have to wait and see. All I know is that in any field with more than four candidates, I’d rather be first or last than anywhere in between.

This would be a short entry if this were all I had to say, so in the interest of filling out a proper length, here are two announcements about candidate forums. On Monday, Mental Health America of Greater Houston is hosting a Mayoral forum on behavioral health, a topic I’m willing to bet you haven’t heard much about in this election. The Houston Police Department has one of the only Mental Health Divisions in the entire country, so this is an issue that needs some public discussion. MHA of Greater Houston, NAMI of Greater Houston, the Council on Recovery, and the Houston Recovery Initiative are partnered for this event. That’s this Monday, August 31, at 6:30 PM at the University of St. Thomas, Jones Hall, 3910 Yoakum – see here for details.

Want a forum for candidates other than Mayoral candidates? On Thursday, September 3, you can attend a forum on environmental issues for At Large Council candidates, brought to you by the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, League of Women Voters of Houston, and over 20 cosponsors representing environmental organizations in the Houston region, including Hermann Park Conservancy. The event is at 6 PM at the Cherie Flores Pavilion in Hermann Park, and it will be moderated by yours truly. It’s free and open to the public – see here for details. Don’t leave me hanging, come on out and hear what the candidates have to say.

A chance to help the sobering center

It’s a good cause.

When the Houston Recovery Center turns to the public in coming months for the first time and asks for help, the request will likely seem small and perhaps odd: The city-backed sobering unit wants to raise funds to pay two van drivers.

But it’s a request that says a lot about the direction of the center, a place for those whose only crime is public intoxication and who, a year and a half ago, would have gone to jail. The center offers a place to sober up with medical supervision and get help with addiction.

The vans are part of what substance abuse professionals call the “warm handoff” principle, the idea that a person who agrees to get help should be quickly shepherded to a detox or treatment center, whatever the next step might be, without pause and with the help of a familiar face. It’s a critical decision easily derailed.

“It’s huge,” Houston Recovery Center director Leonard Kincaid said. “For that moment, you have them. It’s this window of opportunity and you have to do everything right.”

And so the center will make its first donation call for about $320,000 to cover drivers, maintenance, insurance and gas for two vans that will transport clients to medical and social services 24/7. Adding the van service would mark a significant milestone in what staff says is an effort to expand the reach of the over-night sobering center the city opened in spring 2013 to reduce jail crowding and free up police officers.

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Seeing the daily need for addiction services in the city, Kincaid said, has inspired the center to try to offer more long-term care; there are 369,000 people age 12 and older with substance disorders in Houston and fewer than 10 percent currently have access to treatment, according to the most recent National Survey on Substance Abuse and Health.

The center’s 18-month treatment program, for those with addiction, is tracking about 150 people through recovery. Of those enrolled in the program, 87 percent are homeless.

“The responsibility and the burden is becoming very real for us,” Kincaid said.

See here, here, and here for the background. By all accounts, the sobering center has been a welcome addition to the landscape, and clearly there’s no shortage of need for it. To a large degree, you can’t deal with homelessness without also dealing with addiction. We need to make sure the center gets the funding it requires to keep doing what it does and do as much of it as it can.

Sobering center status report

It’s working as planned, which is great news.

When Mayor Annise Parker opened the center at 150 North Chenevert St. last year, the idea was to cut police costs and reduce recidivism, creating a place other than jail for those whose only crime is public intoxication. Prior to the center’s opening, police were making about 17,000 arrests a year in Houston for public intoxication, racking up between $4 million and $6 million in police costs.

The sobering center has reduced that number significantly: From June 2013 to June 2014, Houston police booked just shy of 2,500 people on public intoxication, according to sobering center numbers. The center admitted more than double that number during the same time period.

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Officials said the sobering center is still not being used to its full capacity, but the numbers should pick up as more jurisdictions turn to the facility. In April, Metro, Harris County Sheriff’s Office, constable precincts and University of Houston police started dropping off intoxicated people at the location.

The center started with a roughly $4 million contract with the city. Last month, council gave the center $1.2 million more out of a health waiver to expand services at outpatient recovery clinics. It’s part of an effort to make the center not just a glorified “drunk tank,” but also a place for people with addiction problems to connect with long-term treatment.

“Is it a cure-all? Is it the silver bullet for everything? It’s not,” said City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, one of the original backers of the recovery center idea. “But an intoxicated person a year ago would have been taken to jail and put through the bureaucratic system, and they probably wouldn’t have left with the help they need.”

Houston is one of just 10 or so U.S. cities – San Antonio included – with a partially or completely local or state government-funded sobering center. Most are spread out along the West Coast, from Seattle to Portland to San Diego. Another 20 to 25 cities are now considering the model, said Shannon Smith-Bernardin, deputy director of San Francisco’s sobering center. She is studying the growing number of sobering center models and their potential cost savings for her graduate school dissertation.

“There is no one definition of a sobering center right now – they all offer different services and programs,” Smith-Bernardin said. “But we know it’s becoming a trend.”

See here, here, and here for the background. There’s so much to like about this – it’s cost-effective, it keeps police officers on the streets instead of dealing with low-level offenders, it is far better equipped than the jails to direct people to real options for assistance, and it was a key step in closing the city’s jail. This is a win all around and an idea I wish we’d thought of years ago. Keep up the good work, y’all.