Legal Ramifications of Drug Abuse in Austin, Texas

Texas is one of the most iconic of the 50 United States, and its capital city is Austin. The 11th most populous city in America is also known as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” and it was ranked by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation as one of the safest large cities in the country.[1] That honor may be due, in no small party, to the city’s adoption of drug courts as part of its landscape of addiction treatment.

The Background of Addiction in Austin

travis county drug arrests

Austin is the county seat of Travis County, home to 1.15 million people over a little more than 1,000 square miles. The Travis County Drug Diversion Court, also known as the System of Health Options for Release and Transition (or SHORT) was founded in 1993 to not only focus on substance abuse and the crimes caused thereof, but also to help its clients live clean and be productive members of the Austin-area community.

The idea for drug courts was borne out of necessity. The state of Texas officially reported 5,897 drug arrests (possessing drugs and selling drugs) in Travis County to the FBI in 2009, but the 2010 Community Justice Plan, commissioned by the Travis County Sheriff’s office and the Adult Probation Office found that 25,555 charges that were booked in Travis County were related to drugs in 2008. The Austin Cut reports that, out of all the drug arrests in Texas in 2009, marijuana accounted for 3,418, and cocaine and crack cocaine made up 1,528 arrests. However, the Texas State Legislative Budget Board released a 2007 report that said 92.6 percent of the felony drug arrests in Travis County were for crack or cocaine.[2]

Notwithstanding the contradictory numbers, Texas responded to the rising number of drug arrests by mandating that every county with a population of over 500,000 implement a drug court system. Travis is the fifth largest county in Texas.

Admission into the SHORT program entails the court conducting interviews and performing research into the person’s life and background. As much as this is to ensure that the court is working with a person whose infractions do not warrant harsher criminal penalties (such as a history of violent crimes or serious drug dealing charges), it also serves to help the court determine what form and extent of treatment can be best applied to give the person a chance at redemption and rehabilitation. The drug court intake phase is intended to put a human face on both the system and the person, facilitating a compassionate mindset on either side of the law.

The ‘Most Segregated City’ in Texas

However, Austin’s drug courts face a big problem: They are located in what Texas Monthly calls the “most segregated city” in the state (the University of Texas reported on U.S. Census data that shows Austin in the only large, fast-growing city in America with a declining African-American population[3]), and The Austin Cut found numbers to back up the troubling claim.[4] A 2005 study found that “over half of the SHORT clients were white.” Thirty-six percent were black, and only 8 percent were Hispanic, even though there were more than 430,000 people of Hispanic descent living in Austin in 2005.[5] In 2006, figures released by the Travis County Jail show the racial makeup of inmates was very evenly divided:

  • 2 percent white
  • 1 percent black
  • 6 percent Hispanic

A study commissioned by the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council in 2003 discovered that 52 percent of individuals going through the drug court system were white, 30 percent were black, and only 18 percent were Hispanic.[6]

drug court rate

recidivism rate

Falling Short

The pressures faced by the Austin drug court system have led to some sobering acknowledgements. An independent review conducted in 2009 discovered that people who participated in drug courts had a recidivism rate similar to individuals who did not participate (48 percent of people in the group were arrested again within two years; for the comparison group, made up of non-participants, the figure was 50 percent). In 2010, another review (conducted by NPC Research in Oregon) stated that the system was operating under outdated research methodologies and findings, and found 45 specific areas that required improvement. Some of them included participants entering the drug court program 75 days after they were arrested, while research suggests that people who start their program 20 days from the time of their arrest were less likely to be arrested in the future. Some participants spent just 10 seconds in front of a judge during their court appearances, while the standard of three minutes is considered minimal.

Another Travis County judge told the Statesman that the drug court system was very unstructured and lax; participants showed up for meetings late, without reprimand, and others were allowed to leave before their sessions had ended. There was no random drug testing, and the testing that did occur was very infrequent, which allowed participants to use drugs and then still present themselves as clean by the time they were tested.

Making a Dent

Notwithstanding the deficiencies in Austin’s drug court program, the legal community still believes in the value of the system. Speaking to the Statesman, a district judge said that the millions of dollars saved by simply “making a dent” in the number of people who have addictions that repeatedly put them behind bars will make more of an impact in the Austin-area community than any other endeavor.[7]

To that effect, Travis County’s pretrial services and probation department director secured $176,000 in county funding for three more drug abuse counselors, whose job it is to work exclusively with individuals making their way through the drug court program, providing intensive outpatient treatment and taking over from 11 outside treatment providers.

She has also worked with the district attorney to reduce the time between a person’s arrest and the first appearance in front of a drug court judge. As of

September 2012, that time period is 30 days; their stated goal is to make it 20 days.

The judges interviewed by the Statesman are also addressing the issue of unstructured court times, compelling participants to be present for the entire duration of the sessions and engendering an atmosphere of learning and observing how the drug court judge interacts with other participants.

One of the judges was in session when a 32-year-old man was congratulated for completing the program. The man, a longtime user of crack cocaine and marijuana, had rebelled against the program before settling in to the routine of counseling, group sessions, meetings, and drug testing. His progress was slower than anticipated, but he was clean enough to become the chief cafeteria cook in an Austin IRS building.

drug courts

The Star in the Lone Star State

The addiction treatment landscape in Austin is changing, and that may be due, in part, to the potential and success of the drug court program. Austin has consistently ranked as one of the safest major cities in the United State; in 2010, it had the fifth-lowest rate for violent crime (murder, aggravated assault, and rape); the third-lowest rate in 2012; and the second-lowest rate in 2013.[8]

The Austin Police Chief noted that, despite the city’s population boom, and “[having] a lot of folks with addictions to drugs and alcohol,” the low rate of violent crime gives Austin a lot to be proud of.

Some of the credit for Austin taking over its drug problem goes to former governor Rick Perry, who spearheaded a bipartisan campaign to adopt a newer approach to treating alcoholism and drug abuse. Ahead of the rest of the country, Perry prompted lawmakers to think of substance abuse as a disease, not a moral failing, and that changed attitudes towards dealing with first-time and low-level offenders. Providing progressive, non-combative methods of addressing the problem of drug use, while actually rewarding people for successfully completing the program by wiping or sealing their criminal records, led to the state of Texas closing prisons and saving hundreds of millions of dollars.

The effects have been felt far and wide across the Lone Star State. In his final speech as governor in January 2015, Perry noted that “repeat offenses by drug offenders are down,” and the state’s crime rate was the lowest it had been since 1968.[9]

As the capital city of one of the most populous, biggest, and renowned territories in the United States, Austin finds itself in the spotlight of addiction treatment. It’s an example both of how drug court programs aren’t infallible, but how maintaining those programs and believing in them – as well as believing in the potential of the people who come through those courts – can change lives and cities.