Thursday, May 29, 2008

Mental Health & Criminal Justice in Harris County

In Houston, Local 2 Investigative reporter Robert Arnold spent the past six months researching the mental health care system in Harris County. He filed an informative series of reports that explain some of the system's shortcomings (links to the entire series can be found below).

Here are some of his findings:

HCPC has 250 beds, but only enough money to operate 188 of those beds. Countywide, it's even worse. A study by the Mental Health Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County reports there are only 825 psychiatric beds for a county of more than four million.

A report from Mental Health America of Greater Houston shows more than 92,000 adults in Harris County have a serious mental illness and no insurance. MHA reports only about 18 percent received services.

MHA estimates it costs taxpayers between $25,000 and $35,000 per person for crisis care every year. A lack of bed space and no long-term follow-up care when they leave the hospital forces those with mental illness to cycle through the system over and over again. In fact, 20 percent of the patients seen at the County's Neuro-Psychiatric Center last year had been there between two and 11 times in one year.

Jail is an expensive way to treat the mentally ill. It costs $65 a day to house an inmate. It costs $132 a day to house an inmate in the mental health unit. And that doesn't include medication, transport and court costs.

HPD's Mental Health Unit transported more than 2,000 people for psychiatric treatment last year. Sixty of those calls involved people who had been picked up by police three or more times in one year. HPD also estimates 46 percent of its SWAT callouts last year dealt with someone who is mentally ill.

On a more positive note, a jail in-reach program designed by Healthcare for the Homeless-Houston appears to be having some success. This program addresses the critical flaws in the way that homeless, mentally ill inmates are released from jail. Instead of being released at midnight and left to wander the streets alone, those in the program are met outside the jail by an advocate at 8 a.m. The advocate immediately helps the person get prescriptions filled, signs them up for mental health services and tries to find them a home. This program has only been running for a year, but led to a 35 percent decrease in the re-arrest rate of the mentally ill, homeless inmates who participated. Expanding the program could save taxpayers $7 million a year in jail fees. But despite this success, the program is struggling to find the funds to keep going.

Harris County is also running a similar program with mentally ill probationers, called New Starts.

Links to the entire series:

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