County officials, local legislators in favor of better jail diversion programs

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Roughly 20 percent of about 1,000 inmates housed daily at the Fort Bend County Jail struggle with mental illness, and local law enforcement officials, county commissioners and legislators are working during Texas’ 86th legislative session to advocate for better jail diversion programs.

Similarly, the Harris County Jail sees 25 percent of inmates living with mental illness, and the Montgomery County Jail sees 28 percent, according to the respective sheriff’s offices.

Although the Fort Bend County sheriff’s office has its Crisis Intervention Team that answers mental health-related calls and aims to divert individuals living with mental illnesses from the jail and into mental health care, there is more that can be done to save taxpayer dollars, FBCSO Jail Medical Lt. Scott Soland said.

It costs about $125 per day for Fort Bend County to house an inmate who has mental health issues and $80 a day to house an inmate who does not, Soland said.

“[Inmates with mental illness] typically stay three times as long as someone who does not have a mental illness,” he said. “When we start looking at days that add up for someone staying in our jail, we can save a lot of money for the taxpayers by diverting them into the mental health care system.”

Legislative action

This legislative session, state Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, has filed Senate Bill 105, which would provide short-term residential treatment for people with mental illnesses who are incarcerated in Bexar County. It would also aim to reduce the frequency of arrests and incarceration among people with mental illnesses in the county.

Fort Bend County Precinct 4 Commissioner Ken DeMerchant said he feels local residents need more access to these services. DeMerchant and state Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land, are working on a companion bill, similar to Menendez’s bill, that would give permission to local entities to set up appropriate diversion programs, Miller said.

“Unfortunately, [jail is]where many of them are going because there’s no place else to put them and that’s unsatisfactory,” Miller said.

State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said the Harris County Mental Health Jail Diversion Pilot Program she created in 2013 during Texas’ 83rd legislative session has been successful.

In 2017, during the 85th legislative session, Huffman created a mental health jail diversion grant program for counties seeking funding to address this issue.

“This session I filed Senate Bill 362, which if passed will put into law best practices in mental health treatment and provide a mechanism to divert individuals with mental health conditions from the criminal justice and inpatient mental health treatment systems,” Huffman said.

Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls said he thinks mental illness is the No. 1 threat to the county, state and nation, noting Texas is ranked low when it comes to funding mental illness.

“We have to do better as a community to bring more attention and educate our population on mental illness and what it’s doing to Fort Bend County,” he said. “I hope our legislators up there understand that this is a huge problem.”

Pat Sumner, who serves on the National Alliance on Mental Illness Greater Houston board of directors and has a son living with mental illness, said the organization is advocating for alternatives to incarceration and preventing recidivism—the tendency for a criminal to reoffend—through adequate mental health treatment this session.

NAMI is also working with the county’s behavioral health department on re-entry into society, Sumner said.

“We’re kind of like in between hospital, jail and community,” she said. “If they can come into us, we can get them back on track.”

Stuck in the system

As the Fort Bend County Jail continues to be one of the biggest mental health care providers in the county, local law enforcement officials are looking for better ways to divert more people with mental illness.

“Once they hit our jail, it makes things a lot more complicated,” Soland said. “There are people out there who are seriously mentally ill who commit some very heinous crimes. There’s a system for us to get those folks into housing that can handle their needs because some folks do not belong in the public.”

Someone who is mentally ill may not be competent enough to stand trial, so an evaluation is conducted to determine a need for rehabilitation, Soland said.

There are few options for sending inmates to competency restoration. The state hospital in Austin typically comes with a 90-day waiting period for a bed to become available for a low-level security risk individual. For violent offenders, the average waiting period  is about 13 months, Soland said.

“That entire time, they’re back here under constant supervision,” he said. “They’re not in a general housing group where you can have one deputy watch 56 people. Now they’re in a housing unit that requires two deputies to watch 24 people, and they [can be]here for 13-14 months before they even go off to competency restoration.”

For fiscal year 2019, the FBCSO has a budget of about $79 million, according to county documents. Of that, $34.6 million is dedicated to the jail budget, Soland said.

Once an individual’s mental competency is restored, they return to the county jail and are placed on the docket to be seen by a judge as soon as possible, Soland said.

This, however, is when a lot of decline can occur, he said.

“Once they come back here, they tend to quickly deteriorate because now they get to choose whether they take their medication or not,” Soland said. “Sometimes it’s an endless loop.”

Making progress

Despite the sobering reality mental health inmates face in the county jail, local programs are helping to put an end to the vicious cycle.

To gain a funding source to develop its Crisis Intervention Team, which officially got up and running in April 2014, the sheriff’s office had to conduct about 200 jail diversions annually, Soland said. Now the team of 12 is required to divert about 250 people annually and managed to save about $2 million in taxpayer dollars in the first two years, Soland said.

“We look at the pieces there and the cost savings doing these jail diversions and recognize the fact that they don’t even belong in our jail,” he said.

The Texana Center—a nonprofit in Fort Bend County providing services to people with behavioral health issues and intellectual and developmental disabilities—has received about $620,660 in grant funding from the state for its jail diversion efforts, Huffman said.

“I believe that we as legislators have a great opportunity to build upon the progress we have made over the past couple of years during this session, and I will be working hard to ensure that we do,” Huffman said.

The Sandra Bland Act was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in September 2017 and requires police agencies to make a good-faith effort to divert people from the criminal justice system. Although this was an unfunded mandate, FBCSO officials use its Crisis Intervention Team to track calls and strengthen accountability for increasing diversion numbers, Soland said.

NAMI-Greater Houston also provides support groups and resources to residents living with mental illnesses. The nonprofit is funded by individual contributions, sponsorships, membership dues, grants and events.

NAMI’s focus is on engagement, Sumner said. Her goal is to get the word out to more people that the organization exists and can help.

“We’re starting to get psychiatrists and therapists to understand that this is a team approach for a family member to be successful,” she said. “I look at my son as being alive—the fact that he’s alive and 42—when I had a psychiatrist tell me he wouldn’t be alive at 21.”

Places like the Hope Fort Bend Clubhouse where adults with mental illnesses can receive rehabilitation are designed to help, she said.

“They’re cost effective. It keeps people out of the hospital, and it keeps people out of the jails,” Sumner said.

One in five adults in the U.S. has a diagnosable mental illness, according to NAMI data. As the legislative session gets underway, Soland said he believes improvements will slowly happen.

“Things are changing, it just doesn’t happen overnight, so we’re looking 10 years down the road,” he said.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated $28 million of the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office budget is dedicated to jails. The correct number is $34.6 million is dedicated to jails. 

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Beth Marshall
Born and raised in Montgomery County, Beth Marshall graduated from The University of Texas at San Antonio in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in communication and a minor in business. Originally hired as a reporter for The Woodlands edition in 2016, she became editor of the Sugar Land/Missouri City edition in October 2017.
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