Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and his medical staff wholeheartedly support a bill filed this week to reduce recidivism by the mentally ill who wind up in the county jail, a $5 million pilot program to transition them into community treatment facilities.
“These individuals are principally in our custody because they are sick, not because they are hardened criminals causing incredible danger to the general public,” Garcia noted. “Ultimately it diverts our law enforcement officers away from the gangsters and the thugs that are out there creating chaos and mayhem.”
The sheriff said he could use the millions his office spends on jailhouse mental health treatment to hire more frontline patrol deputies and investigators and beef up anti-gang, human smuggling and other units that combat major criminal enterprises operating in the county.
“We need to make sure those people who are sick are treated appropriately for their illness – that does not include bars, shackles, handcuffs and that their nurse looks more like a police officer than they do a nurse,” Garcia said.
The bill was filed by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, a former Harris County prosecutor and state district judge, who contends that moving the mentally ill out of jail is not only socially responsible, but will save Texas counties a lot of money.
“It costs around $137 per day to keep someone behind bars, as opposed to $12 per day for community mental health services,” Huffman said in a statement announcing the legislation. “The majority of the individuals in the Harris County jail never received the services they needed – services that would have kept them out of jail in the first place.”
The jail’s medical budget is $47 million a year, and half or more is used to provide mental health experts, purchase and dispense psychotropic medication, as well as train and pay salaries of jail staff who are assigned to work with the mentally ill. At any one time, 24 percent of the jail’s nearly 9,000 inmates are receiving medication for mental health reasons.
“There’s no doubt this is getting much more attention this year — in large part, I think, because of Sandy Hook,” said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston. “People are realizing you either pay now or you pay later, after there have been victims. People who have emotional issues, who get off their meds, who have mental illness that is not treated, will end up involved with the criminal justice system at some point. History shows us that.”
The policy shift includes adding an additional $195 million to the proposed budget for mental health care in the state’s health and human services programs and more than $5.9 million to expand mental health services for parolees to give them a better chance of succeeding after prison.
Suggestions of increased mental health funding have also cropped up in ongoing discussions over school discipline and providing proper treatment for military veterans. Lawmakers in both the Senate and the House also have proposed more money for community-based services and programs in local jails — including a proposed pilot program at the Harris County Jail in Houston, the state’s largest lockup, where mental health caseloads have been a growing issue for several years.
Senate Health and Human Services Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has made increased mental health funding a priority — in a state that currently ranks 49th in per capita spending for mental health services. Even as the state’s population grew in the past decade, mental health spending for all types of programs hasn’t kept pace.
“We want to see lawmakers make a sound investment in our state’s mental health system,” said Greg Hansch, a policy coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness that held a rally last month at the Capitol for more funding. “People aren’t able to access services so they end up out on the streets, sleeping under bridges and exposed to the elements. … They end up in our emergency rooms and prisons, which cost a lot of money for our state.
“We could be using our dollars more effectively.”
We also could have been a lot less stingy about appropriating those dollars, and less willing to cut them, but this is where we are. It’s a step in the right direction, and I hope the Harris County pilot gets expanded as quickly as possible. Grits has more.