With two years left in his term, Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra has set his eyes on opening a county operated mental health hospital. In addition to serving regional mental health needs of the public, it would also give judges an alternative to prison sentences.

"I believe we have many people in our jails that could be somewhere else, and a mental health facility will be one of those locations," Becerra said, noting that he did not speak for the commissioners court.

During his tenure as county judge, Becerra has prioritized reducing overcrowding at the Hays County Jail and reducing the number of inmates outsourced to facilities in other counties.

Additionally, a county cite and divert policy scheduled for implementation Sept. 1—delayed because of the pandemic, according to District Attorney Wes Mau—would give some low-level offenders the chance to avoid entering the legal system.

While serving as a milestone in local justice reform, the mental health hospital would bring value to the community in multiple ways, Becerra said.

The hospital would also focus on youth and adolescent mental health needs. Different populations would be separated, with criminal offenders isolated in a secure wing.

Another goal of the facility is to reduce the stigma of mental health by making it a resource, and perhaps a gathering place, for community members.

While offering temporary stays for patients in need of more intensive or supervised care, the facility Becerra describes would include a lecture hall and also provide classes and services to the general public during the day.

"We have a huge, enormous level of passion and care from [me and my] office, and—luckily—Texas State University and all the other ones around us," Becerra said. "We have an enormous amount of people that are very interested in supporting this effort."

Discussions about the facility with doctors and architects are still in the preliminary stages, but Becerra said he was working on creating a comprehensive needs assessment to gauge the regional needs.

"Although it sounds like governmental foot dragging, [a needs assessment] is very necessary so that we can properly prepare and forecast," Becerra said, noting that neighboring counties would also have access to the facility. "We can't refuse them, and so what we need to do is regionally look at the need and plop down some serious commitments."

To assist his goal, Becerra intends to create a task force with the purpose of examining how best to execute such a facility, and he expects to have positive news to share about the project in 2021 as he continues to lay the groundwork for the project within the Commissioners Court, in the community and among various stakeholders.

"I just know that we have the ability—here at my level—to do this, and so I think it's long overdue," Becerra said. "If we build this idea intelligently, then the political support will already be in place."