Dallas County's Only Halfway House Could Lose its Home, So John Wiley Price Wants the County to Build a New One

The only halfway house in Dallas County occupies the cabana area of the luxury hotel-turned-county lockup on Stemmons Freeway. At any given time, the Bill Decker Detention Center houses 225 former Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmates, all sex offenders, trying to make the transition back to civilian life.

Its capacity is completely inadequate, almost laughably so. Every year, TDCJ releases more than 10,000 offenders into the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and the only other halfway house in the area, in Tarrant County, has just 294 beds. That leaves the vast majority of former inmates unsupervised, couch surfing with friends or family.

The transitional housing shortage could get worse before it gets better. Dallas County wants to sell the Stemmons building, leaving the privately operated halfway house without a home.

But the county -- in particular Commissioner John Wiley Price -- does plan to improve the situation. On the commissioners court agenda for Tuesday is a proposal that will more or less give away a 10-acre portion of land on Langdon Road just outside of Hutchins for a new halfway house.

Oklahoma-based Avalon Correctional Services, which operates the current facility, would construct the new building and pay for roads, sewer service, and any other necessary infrastructure in exchange for a "nominal" lease payment.

If built, the facility would be one of the few new halfway houses to be built in Texas in the past couple of decades. Despite staggering need, knee-jerk NIMBYism has effectively kept new ones from being built. So the state is left with just seven transitional facilities, all privately operated, to handle the tens of thousands of offenders who are released each year.

In a memo to Dallas County commissioners, assistant court administrator Gordon Hikel cites the "increasing difficulty of obtaining zoning approvals from municipalities" as justification for offering up county land.

I have a call in to Avalon to get more detail on what they have planned and what the timeline might be.

Update at 2:23 p.m.: Avalon president Brian Costello says the company, which operates transitional housing programs in Austin, El Paso, Corpus Christi, and in other states, took over Dallas County's halfway house just 16 months ago.

"Shortly after we acquired it, we were informed by the county that the building was for sale," he said. "We started looking far and wide for" a new location.

The city of Dallas was out, since it has an ordinance capping the number of beds in such facilities at a few dozen, not to mention tough zoning rules. Other cities pose similar challenges.

"You really limit yourself to areas that don't have schools nearby and parks nearby and residential neighborhoods nearby but are still close enough that you can get the people living there employed," Costello says.

And that's why Avalon approached Price looking for county land. The spot they picked is in an unincorporated area right next the Hutchins State Jail, a gun range and horse stable operated by the Dallas County Sheriff, and some other county services.

Costello stressed that, even though a halfway house is something that no one wants to have next door, the facilities provide a valuable service.

Residents "have finished their sentence, they've basically been paroled," he said. "The problem, is they don't have a vialble home plan, so what we do we try to get them employed, try to get them money in the bank, and ... get them back on feet in the community."

If commissioners approve the deal, Costello predicts the project will take 14 months to complete, at which point the halfway house will continue to occupy the Decker facility.

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson