Thursday, March 7, 2013

Bill introduced to create a jail diversion program for the mentally ill

I've taken my shots at State Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston) in the past for her attempts to weaken the rights of citizens accused by the government of committing criminal acts. Today is not one of those days.

On Wednesday, Sen. Huffman introduced a bill that would create a mental health jail diversion plan in Harris County. For those of y'all who don't know, the Harris County Jail is the state's largest provider of mental health services. It is estimated that a quarter of the inmate and detainee population receives some form of medication or treatment while in custody.

When Pat Lykos was elected District Attorney back in 2008 she said that the mentally ill don't belong in jail. She promised to create some type of program that would keep the mentally ill out of the revolving door at 1200 Baker Street. She was unsuccessful in her efforts.

The new DA, Mike Anderson, accused Ms. Lykos of being a softy when it came to crime. He said nothing during his campaign about stopping the warehousing of the mentally ill in the Harris County Jail. That kind of talk does nothing to warm the cockles of a wingnut's heart.

People who have mental illnesses get in trouble repeatedly because there is nowhere for them to turn to get treatment without money, insurance or a low number in the waiting list for county services. While they are in jail they are medicated. Some receive rudimentary treatment. But, once they get out of jail there is seldom anyone to make certain they take their medication. There is rarely anyone to make certain they attend aftercare programs. They are discharged and forgotten. Until the next time they're arrested, that is.

When discussing this issue we'll need to look past the question of whether a person suffering from a mental illness who isn't taking his medication is capable of forming the criminal intent to commit an illegal act. God knows we can't go there without opening a big can of worms. Suffice to say that there are a few folks in the criminal (in)justice system who have no business being caught up in the bureaucracy because they have a mental illness.

Of course the hype surrounding Sen. Huffman's proposed legislation is a bit over the top when you look at exactly what the legislation does (or purports to do). The bill authorizes the Department of State Health Services to design various pilot programs to divert the mentally ill from the Harris County Jail. The bill doesn't propose any funding other than the $32,650,000 that Harris County has promised to contribute every year.

The program, whatever it ends up being, will only serve between 500 and 600 people. Just to put that into perspective, the Harris County Jail system houses approximately 11,000 people and a quarter of those folks have some type of a mental illness - that works out to around 2,750 people. The pilot program - if ever instituted - would serve about 20% of the jail population.

The program would also be dependent upon public or private facilities accepting additional patients for whatever price the state is willing to pay. What happens if there are no new beds? What happens if no private caregiver wishes to participate? The county's mental health department (MHMRA) isn't equipped to handle an influx of new patients.

That being said, I am glad to see a politician in Texas willing to stand up and buck the "lock 'em all up" mob that populates the GOP.

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