The Texas Association of Counties hosted a Lunch and Learn event covering the intersection of law enforcement and behavioral health at the Capitol on Wednesday, Oct. 24. The event afforded an excellent opportunity for Capitol staffers to hear from Limestone County Sheriff Dennis Wilson about issues pertaining to law enforcement and inmates with behavioral health issues, and the impact this has on county government. It was attended by more than 80 legislative staffers.
Wilson is a recognized expert in this field with more than 40 years of law enforcement experience, including his role as past president of the Texas Sheriffs’ Association. Former Gov. Rick Perry appointed Wilson to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) in 2013, and Greg Abbott reappointed Wilson in 2016. TCJS is the regulatory agency for all county jails and privately operated municipal jails in the state.
Wilson began by commending the 85th Legislature for making mental health a high priority in the state budget. He stressed state leaders must continue moving the mental health system forward by focusing on three interacting components: outpatient treatment, mental health criminal justice interface, and inpatient psychiatric care.
According to Wilson, Texas county jails have become a county’s de facto mental health facilities, and that system is failing those afflicted with behavioral health issues. Persons with behavioral health issues require housing, transportation, employment, proper medical care and peer support if they are to successfully avoid the criminal justice system. A county jail will not meet their needs. The result is these populations experience high recidivism rates. Consequently, costs of operating county jails increase.
According to the Legislative Budget Board, state funding to address these issues includes $62.7 million for the biennium to address the current and projected waitlists for community mental health services for adults and children. Several bills passed last session that would provide grants to community entities for behavioral health services and expand access to peer supports for individuals with mental illness for which $69 million in General Revenue Funds in contingency funding was appropriated.
The state did fund $10.3 million to increase maximum-security forensic bed capacity at the North Texas State Hospital – Vernon Campus, and $24.8 million to maintain purchased inpatient bed capacity and state hospital bed capacity. In addition, funding includes $300 million from the Rainy Day Fund, also known as the Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF), for new construction and significant repair projects at the state hospitals and other inpatient mental health facilities, and approximately $66.3 million from the ESF for immediate maintenance needs at state hospitals.
While the state is making progress, in 2015 alone local taxing authorities contributed about $476 million to mental health community centers. Of that amount, approximately $371 million (78 percent) came from county government. It’s no surprise the criminal justice system is among the largest cost drivers in the county budget.
According to the Texas Council of Community Centers, counties have increased support to local mental health agencies in recent years. Counties provide funds directly to local mental health centers and other assistive community programs as budgets allow.
However, until state funding for local mental health crisis services and mental health rehabilitation is increased, local property taxpayers at the county level will continue to bear the greater financial responsibility.