Houston To Open A Sobering Center For Drunk Arrests

Before getting into politics, Councilmember Ed Gonzalez was a Houston police officer for 18 years.

He's used that experience to launch an idea that would change how the Houston Police Department responds to people who are publicly intoxicated.

"The City of Houston basically incarcerates about 19,000 people like that, 19,000 people per year."

That number does fluctuate a bit from year to year. In 2010 it was 19,000 but in 2011 it was down to 15,000.

Still with as many as 140,000 people going through the city's jail system every year, Gonzalez says diverting public intoxication arrests to a sobering center would ease the strain on the jails in a time when the police force is short on money and officers.

"In many ways a sobering center, to put it in very basic terms, would basically be a drunk tank. It would just be a simple opportunity to allow them to sleep it off. It would be a low amount of time that they're in there, it's not an extended period. And an opportunity I hope we could insert in the process is at least creating a point of access for recovery services as well."

"It takes a police officer, when they take a person to jail, two hours or longer depending on the circumstances of the individual. It takes about 15 minutes to turn them over to a sobering center."

That's Leonard Kincaid with the Council on Alcohol and Drugs Houston. Kincaid actually spent the night in a sobering center in San Antonio to experience it for himself.

"I chose a Friday night because we understand that the peak hours of use is Thursday night, Friday night and Saturday night. And so I was there from roughly nine o'clock at night until about four o'clock in the morning. And what I saw was waves of people coming through. It was like a group that came through around 11:00, another group that came through 2:00, another group that came through around 3:30 or so."

Kincaid says he saw a broad spectrum of people that night, from working girls and homeless men to college students and the bar and club crowd. Many of them had mental health problems and some had other substance abuse issues.

"Recovery is a long-term process. What the sobering center has an opportunity to do is to be one of the first points of intervention where you begin to offer and encourage the person take another path."

Kincaid says it sometimes takes three or four stays in a sobering center before someone accepts help. But it's an intervention they'll never get if they're simply sent to jail. Councilmember Gonzalez says HPD and the mayor are working with him to launch such a center in Houston before the year's end.

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