Texas’ highest courts launch review of mental health and incarceration
Jan 11, 2018 | By Ryan Autullo
Concerned about exceeding the eight minutes she was given to address the tricky relationship between mental health disorders and the state’s criminal justice system, Burnet County Justice of the Peace Roxanne Nelson saved her best story for a private audience in the hallway.
Nelson was among 20 mental health experts and advisers invited to testify Thursday at the Texas Supreme Court at a hearing to establish a new judicial commission on mental health. The commission — made up of judges from the state’s two highest courts, the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals — is a brainstorming group aiming to serve defendants who suffer from mental illness.
In the coming weeks, an order will be signed to formally launch the Texas Judicial Commission on Mental Health.
Nelson told a crowded room that the biggest problem the state faces with mental health is a shortage of beds in mental hospitals. As of about a week ago, 597 inmates who had been found incompetent to stand trial for major offenses were being forced to stay in jail while waiting for space to open at a mental health facility. The average wait is 139 days. Those who are found to be incompetent cannot assist in their own defense and their cases are placed on hold until they are treated.
“They’re not getting treatment in our jails,” Nelson said. “They should not be in jails.”
Nelson became passionate about mental health in the justice system about eight years ago, she said in her discussion outside of the courtroom. A woman who had been taken to jail for passing a bad check attempted to commit suicide at the jail, first by swallowing her own hair and then by manipulating her restraint chair so she could choke herself. The small jail did not have medicine to treat the woman, so she was given Benadryl.
About 12 hours after the woman first tried to hurt herself, a bed finally opened at Austin State Hospital.
“There are probably hundreds of stories similar to hers,” Nelson said.
The state has made progress in other areas. In the recent legislative session, a new law was passed to create grant programs to reduce arrests, recidivism, and incarceration of individuals who suffer from mental illness. House Bill 13, which also became law, could bring the state $30 million through a matching grant program to support community health programs for people experiencing mental illness.
Mental health programs for military veterans were established in the 2013 and 2015 sessions.
“We have more alternatives today than we’ve ever had,” said Sonja Gaines, associate commissioner for intellectual and developmental disabilities and behavioral health services at the Health and Human Services Commission. “There is still a great need, but we have made great strides.”
The Supreme Court got the idea of forming the commission after reviewing a 2016 mental health committee report by the Texas Judicial Council that explored the judiciary’s role in the intersection of courts and mental health. In an uncommon move, the Supreme Court invited the Court of Criminal Appeals to join the commission, leaning on their expertise in criminal cases. The Supreme Court handles civil cases and juvenile matters.
The commission will hold its first meeting this spring. A two-day summit is being considered for the fall to explore what issues need to be addressed.
Justice Jeff Brown said Thursday’s testimony was “very powerful,” and lays the groundwork for change.
“The problem’s even more immense than I thought it was,” he said. “There are a lot of ideas around the state to address it.”