Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced an expansion of the Harris Center's Jail-Based Competency Restoration Program to reduce the Harris County jail population at a Feb. 9 press conference. This program was approved by the commissioners court last week and will take effect in April.

The Harris County jail system has over 250 people awaiting trial because they are deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial, Hidalgo said.

In an effort to help provide justice for individuals who are stuck in jail for months and sometimes up to the maximum allowable 699 days, Harris County officials announced an expansion in the program.

The program will provide services to individuals found incompetent to stand trial—typically due to an active mental illness or intellectual disability—and will allow hundreds languishing in jail to stand trial, according to a press release from Hidalgo’s office.

Although this is a major issue in Houston, Hidalgo said 33% of individuals across the state who died of unnatural causes in jail custody over the past decade had been flagged as potentially mentally ill.

Last year, commissioners court unanimously approved $4.3 million in American Rescue Plan funds to build a pipeline of workers in mental health and add mental health counselors in schools to identify children who need support, Hidalgo said.

“The bottom line is there are too many folks with mental health issues stuck in jail for too long, and the simple truth is that justice delayed is justice denied, not just for those folks, but for the victims who are waiting and needing answers,” Hidalgo said.

The program expansion was approved for $645,000 to provide individuals with support through therapy, substance abuse education, peer support services, case management, discharge planning and medication management. These services help restore individuals to competency so they can stand trial or be deemed unlikely to be restored, in which case they are treated outside of the criminal justice system, officials said.

The investment is expected to double the number of individuals annually restored to competency. Although the program launched in 2021 has had a 93% restoration rate, commissioners are aware the work is not done, Hidalgo said.

In addition to the restoration program, a Youth Diversion Center is another investment in which vulnerable individuals will have access to a path of success and achievement, according to Mike Lee, chief deputy for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

“Before I became a lawyer, I was a public school teacher—an eighth and 10th grade teacher. Many of my students were involved in the juvenile justice system, ... so I look forward to the positive impact the Youth Diversion Center and the Jail-Based Competency Program will have in Harris County. There's still so much work to be done,” Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Lesley Briones said.