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Sobering Centers: Cutting Jail Populations, Costs, and Crime

| May 11, 2012

Almost 19,000 arrests in Houston each year are for public intoxication alone. While certainly this offense is an important tool to keep streets clean and crime free, public intoxication is almost always a non-violent offense handled most appropriately with detoxification rather than secure confinement. Not only does jail time fail to address the underlying issues, it is also expensive–in Houston, the 19,000 public intoxication arrests require $4-$6 million each year in law enforcement and jail costs.

In search of more effective case management of public intoxication offenders, San Antonio, San Diego, Phoenix, Colorado Springs, and Portland have all adopted the use of a “sobering center” as a diversion alternative for these offenders.

A sobering center accepts public intoxication offenders—and only such offenders–from law enforcement custody rather than being sent to a jail cell. Then, after obtaining health information, the offender is required to sober up. When sober, the center counsels the offender on alcohol issues and social services available to help break the cycle of alcoholism. Unless there are active city warrants out on the offender, he or she is then discharged.

This approach is more effective because it addresses the underlying issue of alcohol abuse inherent in most public intoxication offenses. It diverts these non-violent offenders away from costly jail beds while ensuring they are not out on city streets putting themselves or others in harm. Police officers, meanwhile, are free to turn their attention to far more dangerous crimes and criminals.

In turn, Houston is now considering a sobering center of its own. The estimated cost of annual operation is about $1.5 million, far less than the $4-6 million currently spent jailing public intoxication offenders. Further, the size of the facility has been calibrated to optimally handle almost all public intoxication offenders.

Other cities adopting such sobering centers have seen reductions in arrests and jail time for these offenders, as well as fewer emergency room and hospital check-ins for this often indigent population, on top of the cost savings found in jail bed diversions. In San Antonio, in the first year alone, the sobering center led to $6 million in cost savings. After three years, total cost savings from reduced jail time, reduced hospitalizations, and other sources stretches over $25 million.

The successes and cost savings realized by other municipalities are currently being considered by Houston as it seeks its own sobering center. The city may also decide that there is a better way of handling public intoxication that can keep Houston streets safe while saving taxpayers millions.

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MARC A. LEVIN is Right on Crime’s Policy Director, as well as the Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  Based in Austin, Texas, Levin is an attorney and an accomplished author on legal and public policy issues.  Levin served as a law clerk to Judge Will Garwood on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and Staff Attorney at the Texas Supreme Court.  In 1999, he graduated with honors from the University of Texas with a B.A. in Plan II Honors and Government.  In 2002, Levin received his J.D. with honors from the University of Texas School of Law.  Levin’s articles on law and public policy have been featured in national and international media outlets that regularly turn to him for conservative analysis of states’ criminal justice challenges.

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