Monday, September 24, 2007

New Mental Health Court in Bexar County

Bexar County now joins El Paso and Dallas Counties in establishing a mental health court, which addresses the needs of those with mental illness who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Travis County has a special public defender's office for defendants with mental illness. The Justice Center, which implements the Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project, estimates that well over 150 mental health courts are in operation across the country.

Here's a September 23, 2007 editorial from the San Antonio Express-News:

Editorial: For the mentally ill, grant is sign of hope

"Inadequate funding over the years has resulted in a shortage of mental health beds at state hospitals and a growing number of mentally ill individuals in the criminal justice system. Incarceration is an expensive alternative, and it usually does not adequately address the health problems of such defendants. This is clearly illustrated in today's column on Craig Stiffler by Gloria Padilla.

A recently awarded $250,000 grant from the Justice Department to fund a mental health court in Bexar County will go a long way in reducing some of the problems. A portion of the grant will fund two probation officers trained to work with the mentally ill and assigned to a court that will handle some of the mental health criminal docket.

At present, mentally ill criminal defendants are participating in a jail diversion program if they enter a plea and are placed on probation. The program is helping reduce the jail population, but it is doing little to assist the defendants themselves. With the hiring of the specially trained probation officers, Bexar County officials hope to provide a continuum of care for about 80 defendants whose cases will be assigned to County Court-at-Law No. 5 Judge Tim Johnson.

During the past decade, the county has been working to isolate the mentally ill from the regular docket and give them the individualized attention they need, but the sheer volume of the dockets has made that task difficult. Hiring two probation officers whose workload will be limited to 40 cases each, as opposed to the regular caseload of 100 or more, will help tremendously.

The county's next goal is to find the money to establish a public defender's office to represent the mentally ill in court. Without someone looking out for their best interests, the mentally ill tend to have longer stays in jail than the regular population. Their stays are also more expensive. A day in a regular jail bed is about $50 as opposed to $250 for a mental health bed.

If there were adequate health services available for the mentally ill, many of them would not end up in jail. The opening of the Haven for Hope campus of services for the homeless at the end of 2008 will help address a big part of that problem. It will bring together in one location the various agencies that provide resources for the homeless. The criminal justice system, however, also must continue to find ways to address the problem. It is in the best interest of mentally ill patients and the taxpayers to keep the mentally ill out of the county jail and assist them in finding the help they need. The wheels of justice for the mentally ill move slowly, but it's encouraging to see they are gaining momentum."

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