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Texas Grapples With Mental Health Services Instead of Jail

County commissioners in Texas' Travis County, which includes Austin, gave a green light to develop a new behavioral health diversion center to treat people having a mental health crisis instead of jailing them, the Austin American-Statesman reports. Big questions remain, from funding sources to specifics about the facility size and what services will be provided. But law enforcement officials cheered the move as a needed first step. Sheriff Sally Hernandez, who supported the move, said since taking office in 2017 she has seen the percentage of inmates with mental health issues increase, and they are staying longer in jail because they have no other place to go. She said this is especially true for people that are deemed incompetent to stand trial because the wait list for state hospitals are very long. Travis County's move mirrors similar efforts in nearby Hays and Williamson counties.

Houston Landing previously reported that at least one-third of the more than 540 people who died of unnatural causes in Texas jails over the past decade had been flagged as potentially mentally ill at least once since the 1980s. A new bill in the state Senate could help the public learn how often overcrowded jails are denied requests for mental health services for inmates, by requiring the state to audit local mental health authorities and public online data related to mental health care, Houston Landing reports. “There has to be much more transparency with local mental health authorities about public funds spent on services,” said Melissa Shearer, director of Travis County's Mental Health Public Defender Office, during a Texas Senate Health and Human Services Committee hearing Wednesday at the Capitol. Advocates have long said that more data need to be collected about who is cycling through the criminal justice and mental health systems to ensure that funding is directed appropriately. This bill, they say, is a step in the right direction. “This bill will hopefully give us a better picture of what’s going on in our communities that’s causing our jails to turn into warehouses of people with mental illness and disabilities,” said Krish Gundu, executive director of the Texas Jail Project — a nonprofit that advocates for people in county jails — in a statement.


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