One Voice Letter to City Council RE: FY 2021 Budget

Re: City of Austin Budget

July 7, 2020

Dear Mayor Adler and Council Members,

Over the next few weeks, you will be determining the course of the next City budget. As you go through this process, we wanted to make clear that One Voice Central Texas supports the Austin Justice Coalition’s goal “to narrow the scope of the criminal justice system and to usher in transformative justice that no longer relies on criminalization and punitive excess, but instead has human dignity as its core organizing principle and defers to community-based initiatives to improve public safety.” This will require a fundamental reimagining of what constitutes public safety, addressing systemic racism and a redesign of the City budget to focus on prevention and support services.

Our current criminal justice system is built like a maze. Even in the most difficult mazes, there is a way to get in and out. But the criminal justice system is designed both with racial inequity and without enough paths that come out of the maze. A lot of people, no matter where they come into the criminal justice system, get on a path that goes straight to prison and has no way out. We know that other routes, such as those to mental health services, addiction services or juvenile justice services, must be made available. We need to redesign the justice maze with clear routes so that people can get where they need to go in the most effective, supportive, and efficient way possible. One Voice Central Texas would like to work with the City as we redesign the justice maze.

We would like the Council to consider public safety in a broader context and understand the role that our members play in addressing public safety and reducing costs to the more expensive parts of the system. Human services investments decrease burden on many parts of the city budget:

  • In 2018, the Austin Police Department (APD) received over 11,000 crisis calls for service. When Integral Care’s Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach Team (EMCOT) was engaged in responding to these calls, there was a 100% jail diversion rate and an 89% involuntary placement diversion rate. The vast majority of people who receive EMCOT services remain in the community with supportive services (City of Austin, 2019). Early intervention and effective mental health treatment can reduce the number of crisis calls to APD and the number of emergency detentions and jailings.
  • Substance use often brings people into contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice systems. In 2018, the Austin Police Department (APD) reported 4,148 driving while intoxicated (DWI) incidents and 5,993 narcotics-related offenses (Austin Police Department, 2019). Effective substance use intervention, treatment and peer support can reduce these numbers.
  • n 2016 it was estimated that the 250 most ‘expensive’ homeless individuals incurred average annual public costs of $222,603 per person. Averaging the most costly 500 individuals overall with the 500 most costly based on jail bookings, yields an average annual public service cost of $95,929. After subsequently deducting housing and service costs, permanent supportive housing intervention results in a total cost savings of $49,601 per person per year (ECHO, 2019).

Our members work in other ways to provide the building blocks to safe neighborhoods and streets by:

  • Providing workforce skills that give individuals a sense of purpose and access to employment,
  • Supporting children, youth and families so they can develop and thrive
  • Creating supportive housing opportunities,
  • Supporting survivors of violence and their children so they can break the cycle,
  • Helping our reentry population adjust and reach their full potential, and
  • Ensuring the physical and behavioral health of our population

Another example is the SAFE Alliance’s city-funded Bridge to Safety program which works to mitigate the need for law enforcement involvement and prevent future victimization of survivors of sexual and domestic violence, human trafficking and exploitation and/or child abuse by offering one-time advocacy and/or financial assistance to increase immediate safety (i.e. paying to get them to a safe home in another city). In the first four months of the program, SAFE served 130 clients (300 people including children), 100% of whom reported that the program will prevent future interactions with law enforcement.

Why this is Important Now:

Managing the criminal justice system differently can address some important problems currently facing our community. If we take a commonsense approach to solving our communities’ problems, we can decrease crime and enhance public safety. On the other hand, if we spend resources sending more people through the criminal justice system instead of using proven alternatives, these problems will remain. A responsible approach to criminal justice will make our community safer and help all Austinites. Our current system is taking a toll on our society as a whole and on communities of color in particular. We need to address the places in the system where it is not working to advance the goals of our community.

We understand that the City Council has some difficult decisions to make as you look at next year’s budget. As you make these critical decisions, we ask that you consider that your social service sector, when appropriately resourced, can help make our community safer, address income inequality, and provide a foundation for individuals to reach their full potential. Austin has one of the fastest growing income and racial disparities in the country. When people’s wellbeing is undermined by inequity, our community runs the risk of losing out on their contributions to our neighborhoods, our economy, and our civic life. Human services organizations work to build, shore up, and restore wellbeing where it is at risk.

One Voice Central Texas would welcome the opportunity to work together to develop a new approach to improving public safety. We have the unique opportunity to make decisions now that will keep our city safe and affordable for all of our residents. When policymakers leverage the expertise of human services providers to design programs, the resulting initiatives are more effective, more workable, and more innovative. On the other hand, when the public sector and the nonprofit sector do not communicate or collaborate, Austin misses out on opportunities to innovate and make the most of the resources that we’ve dedicated to address important social problems.

One Voice Central Texas is a coalition of the executive leadership of nearly 100 nonprofit health and human service organizations committed to making sure that everyone can reach their full potential and contribute to our community. Our membership is diverse and includes organizations of all sizes, so we bring a variety of experiences to the table. We look forward to continuing to work with the City of Austin.

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