Travis County to consider building a 'drunk tank'

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by TONY PLOHETSKI / KVUE NEWS

khou.com

Posted on March 11, 2014 at 9:11 AM

AUSTIN, Texas -- Over the weekend, Austin police arrested 20 people for public intoxication. The KVUE Defenders have learned that officials are taking new steps that would decriminalize public intoxication.

Despite the city's growing party district, Austin and Travis County have lagged behind cities like Houston and San Antonio in taking what proponents call a progressive, cost-saving step.

From his perch serving pizza, Kenneth Overturf sees plenty of late-night drunks on Sixth Street.

"They're stumbling around really bad. They're looking around like they can't figure out what they're going to do. You'll see them jump into groups of people they don't know," Overturf said.

In the past five years, Austin police arrested about 27,000 of those drunks, giving them a ride to jail and a charge of misdemeanor public intoxication on their wrap sheet.

Now, Travis County Court-at-Law Judge Nancy Hohengarten and other criminal justice officials want to change how police handle those offenders. It would still get them off the street but let them keep a night of debauchery off their record.

"So for ideas about what to do with people who are drunk in public, officials are looking to cities like San Antonio, where instead of taking them to jail, they bring them here to sober up," Hohengarten said.

It's a modern-day "drunk tank" -- a city operated sobriety center that more closely resembles an urgent care. Cots line the floor. San Antonio police take anyone detained for public intoxication there to sleep it off. They are never formally booked and no charges are ever filed against them. As soon as they sober up, they are free to go.

Hohengarten and others are pushing that same process. Under Texas law, police officers can arrest a drunk person if they believe they are a danger to themselves or others. But officials warn, such cases are tying up police and court time.

Opening a sobriety center would be cheaper, more efficent and a better use of already precious resources. Booking a public intoxication suspect can take an hour or more. 

"Then that officer is not downtown looking for other folks who are publicly intoxicated who may be assaultive or who may be victims of assault themselves," Hohengarten said.

Like in San Antonio, officials also hope the center would be a first-stop for long-term help with subtance abuse.

Criminal justice officials aren't the only proponents.

As his pizza oven heated up for SXSW revelers, Overturf says he hopes that by next year, those who have too much to drink can take a ride -- not to jail, but to somewhere else -- until they are safe and sober.

Travis County commissioners are expected to vote Tuesday to enter into formal talks with the city to build a center. Possible sites include one of several city- or county-owned buildings that are soon to be vacant or are currently vacant.

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