Bill to support jail diversion programs will change lives and communities

One plus one equals three. That’s what happens when common sense efforts bring people together to achieve something that could not be done separately.

Senate Bill 292, by state Sens. Joan Huffman, Jane Nelson and Charles Schwertner, and House Bill 12, by state Rep. Four Price, leverage local leadership and funding to divert people with mental illness who pose no risk to public safety into effective medical care and away from jail. The bills encourage public and private agencies, including county governments and local court systems, to work together to implement effective strategies that will help people avoid future entanglements with the criminal justice system.

Pre-arrest jail diversion programs are especially needed for people with complex mental health needs who become trapped in repeating cycles of arrest, incarceration, emergency room use and homelessness until they’re either locked up in state prisons or the courts find they need expensive state hospital care to restore their mental competency. People with severe mental illness who are unable to participate in their defense are entitled to competency hearings that too often involve transfer to state hospitals where they receive care until their competency to stand trial is restored. These Texans who get caught up in “cycles of super-utilization” account for a disproportionate share of the over $2 billion spent annually on emergency rooms and local and state criminal justice systems.

Both SB 292 and HB 12 promote use of the most current knowledge and best practices in behavioral health to target these highest-risk individuals, direct them to the most effective interventions and services and hold local systems accountable for results. The bills would create a matching grant program under the Health and Human Services Commission to assist jurisdictions across Texas. The grants would support collaboratives in those counties implementing programs to reduce the frequency of arrest, incarceration and emergency system use for people with mental illness, and thereby help reduce the current backlog for forensic commitment to a state hospital. Funds now allocated to this repeated and expensive cycle could in turn be invested in additional jail diversion strategies with proven, measurable outcomes. Those strategies could then be replicated and expanded across the state.

We know this approach has great potential to improve public safety and alleviate suffering. It was my privilege to serve on the advisory committee of the Texas Judicial Council Mental Health Committee this past year. In our report, published in October 2016, the committee recommended continuing and expanding the Harris County Mental Health Jail Diversion Pilot Program. After just one year, that program successfully reduced repeat jail use and the frequency of arrests and incarceration among people with three or more arrests. Beyond the profound benefit to the lives of these individuals and their families, the program reported,“[t]here was a potential savings to the taxpayer of $947,131.”

Bexar, Dallas, Denton, El Paso, Tarrant, Travis and many other counties are in varied stages of developing similar jail diversion programs. A concerted effort should be made to ensure programs have a front door — a point where diversion occurs before arrest if public safety is not at risk — as well as a reentry program with high quality standards like those of Harris County. Matching grants funded through SB 292 or HB 12 would help those and other local mental health collaboratives develop and expedite community-based services to reduce the use of jails as mental health facilities.

Data from jail diversion programs in other states, as well as the Harris County Jail Diversion Pilot Program, demonstrate the health and economic benefits of treating mental illness as a disease, not a crime. For Texans straddling the intersection of mental illness and criminal justice, as well as Texas taxpayers, such programs are critically needed. And they yield dividends far beyond the sum of their parts.

Justice (Ret.) Harriet O’Neill, Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute Board Member

Harriet O’Neill was elected to the Supreme Court of Texas in 1998 and re-elected to a second term in 2004. She retired from the Supreme Court on June 20, 2010, and founded the Law Office of Harriet O’Neill, A Professional Corporation, in Austin, Texas. She serves on the board of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute.