Travis County commissioners receive update on mental health jail diversion program

Homeless camps have become a fixture under highways such as I-35.

Homeless camps have become a fixture under highways such as I-35.

When Travis County commissioners voted Aug. 13 to approve an interlocal agreement with Integral Care to continue a mental health jail diversion program, they did so despite not having data on the program’s track record as a pilot.

The pilot program, which began in 2016, works to divert individuals with mental illnesses out of jail and to connect them to services while their criminal cases are pending. The intent is to save jail bed days, which are a considerable county expense, and to respond better to defendants who are mentally ill.

“The people who are served by this program are often the most challenging people to consider releasing on bond,” Travis County Magistrate Court Judge Leon Grizzard told commissioners at an Aug. 27 meeting. Many of the clients are experiencing homelessness or otherwise hard to follow up with.

Grizzard administers the specialty docket, which takes into consideration defendants’ mental health issues as they relate to criminal conduct.

“This [program] is so important because people can, by demonstrating a period of several months of compliance with the goals of maintaining stable residence and medication, can secure a much better outcome for their case,” Grizzard said. “This also ripples through the entire mental health operation in the jail, both freeing up beds and medical and psychiatric resources for other people.”

The county’s pretrial services division recommended approval of the agreement, which will solidify its working relationship with Integral Care, the local mental health authority, as the program is formalized.

Between fiscal years 2015-16 and 2017-18, the program assessed 352 defendants in jail for program eligibility. Of those, 177—or half—enrolled in the program, according to a presentation given by Integral Care and Travis County Community Justice Services at an Aug. 27 Commissioners Court meeting.

This year, the program projects it will assess 152 defendants in jail and enroll a total of 67, or about 44%.

Of those clients enrolled in the program during FY 2015-16 and FY 2016-17, 70% successfully completed it, per the presentation.

Among those who successfully completed the program, 72% satisfied all court appearances, and 67% did not have a new offense while awaiting their court case disposition, per the presentation.

In the longer term, they were 38% less likely to be rearrested in the following year than those who enrolled in the program but did not complete it.

Interestingly, while women made up 23% of the Travis County jail population between 2016-19, they made up 42% of the program’s participants.

Moving forward, the county’s criminal justice planning department is tasked with further program evaluation.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said, if possible, she would like to see a control group so the program’s effects can be seen.

“I have no doubt in my mind that y’all have moved the needle on this,” she said. “I just don’t know how much.”
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By Emma Freer

Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her beat includes the Travis County Commissioners Court and local business news. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.


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