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Sobering center opens in downtown Houston; expected to help city save money on jail costs

Thursday, March 07, 2013

The City of Houston is taking a much different approach to handling people under the influence and it will mean far fewer prosecutions for public intoxication

Officers can now take them to a so-called sobering center. City leaders held a ribbon cutting ceremony in downtown Thrusday morning at the center, a converted warehouse at the Star of Hope Mission.

It may be officially called the Houston Center for Sobriety, but for one veteran police lieutenant he sees it as a life saver for many Houstonians.

"Our officers respond to 27,000 calls a year in mental health crises. We know a lot of folks just need to get into a place and get stabilized, and not be in jail," said Lt. Mike Lee with the Houston Police Department.

Right now, anyone picked up by a Houston police officer, whether it's public intoxication during a street party or sleeping on the sidewalk, gets sent to the City Jail. With the opening of the sobering center, officers will have a choice.

"It could be the college frat boy that just had too much to drink one day, it could be a veteran that's fallen on hard times; it gives the police officers an option," said Houston City Council Member Ed Gonzalez.

It's estimated the average person here will stay anywhere from four to six hours, saving money and precious police resources.

"Our public intoxicants make up a third of jail population in the city. So we have a chance to free up jail space for what we consider to be real criminals," said Lt. Lee.

The cost of running the sobering center will be about a third of what it costs to send the same people to jail. It cost $4 million to prepare the center and will cost $353,000 a year to run it. The city says it spends up to $6 million a year processing public intoxication suspects in jail.

More importantly, detainees here will have access to mental health and community resources to lesson their chance of becoming repeat offenders. Mayor Annise Parker calls it a win-win.

"I don't need them in my jail, they don't need the criminal record, and they really need help," said Houston Mayor Annise Parker.

When the Center for Sobriety gets fully up and running, it should house about 60 men and 20 women.
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