On Oct. 28, TAC hosted its first Virtual 254 Log on & Learn event for legislators and their staffs. This event was an opportunity for the Legislature to hear from county officials about the significant impact that behavioral health has on counties. TAC assembled four subject matter experts to discuss these issues. The panel included Sheriff Brian Hawthorne of Chambers County, Justice of the Peace Roxanne Nelson of Burnet County, Criminal District Attorney Sharen Wilson of Tarrant County and Tom Green County Judge Stephen C. Floyd.
Sheriff Hawthorne kicked off the event by giving his perspective on behavioral health funding and partnerships with local mental health authorities, including the success of their collaboration with the Spindletop Center in Beaumont. He informed the virtual audience that Chambers County has two deputies dedicated to the program and that out of 6,724 interactions between law enforcement and individuals with mental illness, 5,173 were diverted away from the criminal justice system. The sheriff emphasized that thousands of dollars are being saved through these diversions. Chambers County has also implemented a mental health officer program and crisis intervention team training for officers. Hawthorne noted that mental health training for law enforcement officers is critically important and should be funded by the Legislature, including areas where counties are currently covering additional training costs.
Judge Nelson followed up by pointing out that county jails continue to be the largest mental health care providers in Texas. Meanwhile, Texans are losing access to inpatient psychiatric care because of the forensic commitment crisis. The waitlist for forensic beds has increased to more than 1,200 individuals, and that number continues to grow daily. Consequently, the forensic population consumes more than 70% of the available inpatient capacity within the state hospital system. Further compounding the issue, the average length of stay in forensic beds is 170 days. Judge Nelson recommended that the Legislature continue to increase funding for behavioral health services.
Criminal District Attorney Wilson discussed how Tarrant County is making great strides in enhancing its mental health services, in part by identifying which misdemeanor crimes are likely linked to the offender experiencing mental illness. For example, 80% of criminal trespass misdemeanor defendants were previously on the rolls of the local mental health authority, My Health My Resources (MHMR) of Tarrant County. The county has also been working diligently over the past eight months to get its mental health diversion program off the ground, as well as to form community partnerships and implement court-based programs.
Judge Floyd emphasized how Tom Green County has had to be very innovative when it comes to mental health diversions due to geographic challenges. There are two mental health hospitals in the area. However, they are constantly at capacity and chronically understaffed. Judge Floyd pointed out that mental health defendants put a tremendous strain on county resources. Additionally, he educated the audience on the burden of indigent defense costs and the cost of psychoactive medications for inmates.
The overall message from these county experts is that low-level offenders with mental illness are not best served in custody and that efforts to divert them away from state jails and hospitals must reflect cohesion among the local mental health authorities, nonprofits, the courts and law enforcement. Though Texas had a record session for mental health funding during the 86th Legislature, unfortunately counties are still experiencing challenges accessing adequate resources. The Legislature should continue to invest so counties can ensure that individuals with mental illness are treated appropriately both within and outside of the criminal justice system.
For additional information on this article, please contact Amy Befeld or Kelsey Bernstein.