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public intoxication

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.


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.

Sobering center opens up


Photo from

Mayor Annise Parker joined council members on Thursday to unveil the innovative Houston Recovery Center, a place where people who are intoxicated can sober up instead of being arrested. Officials say there’s only one other similar facility in Texas.

“Turns out that a significant percentage of the people we were putting in jail, were there for being generally inappropriate in public because they were under the influence of some sort of substance,” Parker said. “I don’t need them in my jail, and they don’t need the criminal record. They need help.”

Anyone brought by police to the 24-hour “sobering center” on North Chenevert Street in downtown will stay a minimum of four hours and leave without an arrest record. Recovery support specialists trained to deal with people suffering from substance abuse addiction will also offer exit counseling.

“The center will provide a kind of forced intervention and education experience for those who enter the doors,” said Leonard Kincaid, the recovery center’s director of operations. “What we will do is lead them on a pathway to recovery.”

Only those who have committed no other crimes and have no outstanding warrants will be given the option by police officers to be taken to the facility. Once there, they must clear health screenings, surrender belongings and wait to be sober.

The city spent $3 million in voter-approved public safety bonds to renovate the warehouse and will pay Star of Hope Mission $1.5 million a year to lease and staff the facility.

Two rooms were built to house 84 men and women separately. A sleeping cot and basic linens will be provided, but as Kincaid said, the facility was designed for safety, not comfort.

See here, here, here, here, and here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s press release. Besides being a good idea in its own right, opening this facility is a necessary step towards getting the city out of the jail business. I understand that there is progress being made on a joint city-county processing center, which is the other purpose of the city jail, and if all goes well that could lead to the eventual closing of the city jail. One point to keep in mind is that the Harris County Jail is no longer overcrowded, which was an obstacle to doing this kind of partnership in the past. They didn’t have enough room for their own inmates, so there was no question of taking on someone else’s inmates. That’s no longer an issue. I’m hopeful this project can proceed to its logical conclusion. Swamplot has more, and via Council Member Ed Gonzales you can see some photos from the inside of the center here.

Council approves funding for sobering center


City Council agreed Wednesday to spend $4.3 million to outfit a warehouse at Star of Hope Mission and $353,000 a year to operate it as a place to take drunks instead of jail.

City officials expect the 84-bed facility to open later this year and justified the expense on the hope that it will save money by diverting thousands of people from expensive and time-consuming jail bookings.

Police officers who detain people whose only crime is being drunk in public will have the option of dropping them off at the so-called sobering center for at least a four-hour stay without an arrest on their record. Because the drop-offs are much quicker than jail bookings, police would return to patrol sooner.

The Mayor’s press release has the key numbers plus some more details:

The city’s annual cost to lease, maintain and staff the new center is estimated to be $1.5 million, compared to the $4-6 million currently being spent to process public intoxication cases at the city jail.

The Houston Center for Sobriety will be an alternative to jail for people detained for public intoxication, allowing the opportunity to regain sobriety in a safe, medically-monitored environment. The Houston Police Department (HPD), Houston Department of Health and Human Services and Houston Fire Department (HFD) will provide city services at the site. In addition, the building will also house the Houston Police Department’s Mental Health Unit, bringing together staff dispersed throughout the city into one location.

A 501(c)3 foundation will also be created to aid in future fundraising for operations and possible future expansion.

See here for some background. This should pay for itself in a couple of years, and it moves the city a step closer to exiting the jail business. Good work all around.

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.