House Backs Mental Health Jail Diversion Program

Christopher Ajayi, a psychiatric technician, makes his rounds at the Harris County Jail.
Christopher Ajayi, a psychiatric technician, makes his rounds at the Harris County Jail.

The House tentatively approved a bill Monday that would allow Harris County Jail to start a pilot program that officials hope would become a model for reducing mental illness in local lockups across Texas.

Senate Bill 1185, by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, would create a program that connects mentally ill inmates with social, clinical, housing and welfare services during the first weeks after the person's release from jail. The bill was previously approved in the Senate, and if it passes a final procedural hurdle in the House, it will head to Gov. Rick Perry's desk.

Under the bill, the program would be implemented by Harris County officials and the Texas Department of State Health Services. It’s part of a major effort this legislative session to increase spending on and treatment for those with mental illness in Texas. For the first time in at least a decade, lawmakers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars more on mental health services.

“I’m hoping again to divert as many folks as we can out of the criminal justice system and into the mental health treatment system, where they can get the help that they need for their illness,” Huffman said.

Houston’s Harris County Jail has become a de facto state hospital, Sheriff Adrian Garcia has said, where psychotropic medication is needed for about 2,000 inmates a day. 

Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for the Harris County Sheriff's Office, said that local officials conducted a study of inmates in 2011 and 2012 that showed more than 900 inmates came into the jail at least five times in those two years. Some of them were in jail as many as 30 times. Of those inmates, some 560 had a mental health diagnosis, Bernstein said.

Under the pilot program in SB 1185, the state would put in $5 million per year and the county would put in another $5 million to provide services for mentally ill inmates who come through the jail system. The DSHS will have to report to legislators and state leaders by Dec. 1, 2016, an evaluation of the program’s success in reducing recidivism, repeat arrests and incarceration of the mentally ill.

“Anytime you can ensure they get treatment they need, I think you will increase chances they will end up stable and not end up back in the criminal justice system,” said Andrea Usanga, director of policy and government relations for Mental Health America of Greater Houston.

If the program is a success, local officials said, they hope it can be used in other communities across Texas where sheriffs struggle with a burgeoning population of mentally ill inmates.

“They take up an abundance of our jail capacity,” said Fred Brown, Harris County’s chief deputy over jail operations. “That drives up costs. It’s much cheaper to have intervention outside.”

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