County Rushes to Get Mental Health Diversion Center and Lawyers at Bail Hearings

Photo by John Anderson

After a years-long ideation process, plans are finally firming up for a facility that would provide an alternative to jail for people experiencing mental health crises.

At the same time, due to a new ACLU lawsuit, the county may be forced to focus on another justice-related issue first: providing attorneys at initial bail hearings. It’s unclear to commissioners whether hurrying up on pre-trial attorney access will mean putting the planned Mental Health Diversion Center on pause or if the two issues are connected in a way that will actually result in opening the Diversion Center faster – but they agree both projects are top priority.

Last week, county staff updated the Travis County Commissioners Court on the next phase of development of the Mental Health Diversion Center and central booking facility. During the next six months, staff will focus on finding an architectural and engineering contractor to head the planning for the facility.

Last week, however, the ACLU filed suit against the county for a potential constitutional rights violation: The county does not provide attorneys at bail hearings, a practice called “counsel at first appearance” (CAFA). With the lawsuit at play, some stakeholders suspect CAFA implementation could take precedence over the diversion center.

Prior to the ACLU complaint, at last week’s meeting, staff noted that the county’s March 2023 resolution kicking off the mental health diversion project showed diversion is a top priority. Commissioner Brigid Shea presciently noted that this prioritization could change, as CAFA is a “legal requirement we’re not currently meeting. Let’s just say theoretically there’s a lawsuit and the courts say you have to provide this immediately.”

Shea noted that part of the reason CAFA isn’t operating is because of the current central booking facility’s physical condition: “The space is literally broken and unusable … partly because we made a decision to delay maintenance. I’m concerned that we’ll get ourselves into more of these kinds of catch-22s, if we are not undertaking maintenance because we’re prioritizing another use [such as diversion].”

Linking the two issues, the diversion center design could also require a new central booking facility, to divert people at the time of booking to avoid a criminal record. In a press release last week, Sheriff Sally Hernandez noted that “a new Central Booking facility … benefits not only the diversion center, but also CAFA.” Commissioner Ann Howard agreed, saying in the meeting, “to me it’s imperative that we walk and chew gum at the same time.”

After more than 30 justice advocacy organizations sent a letter calling for immediate CAFA implementation, the county announced a pilot to begin later this month. Still, the ACLU argues that the pilot is not enough. If the courts compel the county to implement a permanent CAFA program quickly, could it actually speed up the construction process for a new central booking? Commissioner Howard told the Chronicle, “Building takes years regardless,” but “maybe we would be forced to recruit staff specifically to accommodate CAFA soon.” Judge Andy Brown agreed: “I think [implementing CAFA] would be easier if Sheriff Hernandez had a building that was easier to staff for this purpose. There’s no way a lawsuit’s gonna speed up the building of a building. But I’m all in favor of anything that will speed up the process.”

Editor’s note Monday, Apr. 16, 5:18pm: This story has been updated to include comments from Commissioner Howard and Judge Brown regarding whether the lawsuit could speed up Central Booking construction.