In the coming days, the deaths of Sandra Bland and Harris County Deputy Darren Goforth will continue to jolt statewide conversations about how the Texas criminal justice system deals with mental health issues.
Bland's apparent suicide by hanging in the Waller County Jail cast a harsh spotlight on the state's county jails, raising questions about how a known suicidal inmate could have been left unmonitored.
Gunned down while pumping gas, Goforth's killing highlighted the criminal justice system's failure to identify and help a man with a history of mental problems and an arrest record dating back to 2005.
Taken together, the incidents have served as wake-up calls that state officials are promising to heed.
Higher jail standards, better inmate care and more staff training will be among the topics as the House Committee on County Affairs meets Tuesday. A Texas Public Policy Foundation panel discussion, The Right Prescription For Mental Health in Criminal Justice, follows on Wednesday, and the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice will hold an interim meeting Sept. 22 on jail safety standards.
Bland was found hanging in her Waller County Jail cell July 13, three days after a state Department of Public Safety trooper pulled her over for changing lanes without signaling. She was arrested after an argument ensued. Her death was ruled a suicide.
In Goforth's case, Harris County authorities say Cypress resident Shannon Miles gunned down the deputy at a local gas station Aug. 28. Miles has been convicted of resisting arrest, criminal mischief, disorderly conduct with a firearm, criminal trespass and other crimes. In 2012, he was sent to a state mental hospital after an arrest for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Bland and Miles each had a history of apparent mental health problems, and lawmakers, law enforcement officials and experts say their stories could have ended differently. The two high-profile deaths, they say, have highlighted how ill-equipped some jails and law enforcement agencies are to deal with the mentally ill.
“A lot of people in the criminal justice system have mental health issues, and I’m a strong believer that if you deny someone their liberty by locking them up, you have a responsibility to make sure they’re safe,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice.
When that responsibility is not met, Whitmire said, tragedy follows.
“And I think Ms. Bland certainly is a case in point,” he said. “She obviously had emotional issues. The Jail Standards Commission’s already said there was mishandling of the case in terms of the intake, sensitivities – and also when you determine someone has those issues, you have to give them proper supervision.”
But there are other examples, he said, and “we’re going to review jail operations across the state large and small.”
Resources for inmates with mental health issues are scarce in the law enforcement and corrections community, said Grimes County Sheriff Don Sowell, president of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, especially in the state's many rural jails.
And his colleagues across the state just don’t know what to do, he said. They’re looking to lawmakers to provide a forum for discussion and foster ideas. “I’m a small-county jail,” he said. “I got a 111-capacity population jail.”
That means resources such as psychiatric services aren’t always immediately available especially in rural facilities, he said.
“I don’t feel the committees are downing the sheriffs,” Sowell said. “I think they’re reaching out. That’s the way I look at it. Teamwork. ’Cause there’s so many mental cases out there, and sometimes county jails have become the dumping ground for mental patients. I just don’t know what the answer is other than people with mental issues certainly sometimes – jail is not where you need to go.”
To address the problem, one has to understand mental illness, said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, the chairman of the House County Affairs Committee.
"Mental illness compels. That's what it does," he said. "People with depression are compelled to have ideation of suicide."
When someone with a mental illness commits a minor crime, he said, treatment — not a jail cell — should be sought. State funding has covered much of the resources for mental health in Texas, but it's not enough, Coleman said.
His suggestion: Expand Medicaid coverage in Texas for more resources to be available to people battling mental illness.
"This is an ongoing thing," he said about the mental health discussion. "It's tough because Texas over the last decade has been as cheap as it can be."
Law and policy makers aren’t waiting for the next legislative session to act, Whitmire said. Hence the upcoming meetings, and continued efforts by agencies including the Commission on Jail Standards to keep tabs on local jails. One move underway is the revamping of the mental health intake form county jails use when an inmate first is processed, officials say.
“You don’t have to wait for the Legislature to act, research or investigate,” Whitmire said. “You need to stop and look over your operations today.”
Outside state government, policy analysts are looking for solutions to the same problems.
Some analysts are pushing to remove individuals with mental health issues from the criminal justice system. Analysts are promoting alternatives including community programs.
Though reform has been slow, Texas and other states are making progress, said Katharine Ligon, a mental health policy analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities.
“We’ve got several challenges that through these hearings we hopefully can break down,” said Ligon, who will participate in the Texas Public Policy Foundation panel discussion. “Sheriffs have been some of the loudest and most effective advocates of mental health reform. I think that that alone says a lot for where our states have been.”
Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation and Center for Public Policy Priorities are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.