Today, on my lunch hour, I attended a League of Women Voters panel about mental health and the criminal justice system. The panelists were Sheriff Kelly Rowe; Mary Gerlach, adult behavioral health director for the Lubbock regional MHMR; County Court-At-Law Judge Drue Farmer; and Cathy Givens from the DA’s office civil division. I was surprised at how good the panel was, and I learned a lot from it.
The panel was in anticipation of a Lubbock County mental health court that will begin operation in January. The mental health court will join the ranks of other specialty courts in Lubbock County: drug court, DWI court, and family recovery court. Budget-watchers can rejoice — the new mental health court will shift existing resources and does not add extra expense. And, if it’s successful, it should lower court and jail expenses by freeing up resources: jail beds, prosecutor time, and space on the docket to name a few.
The panel did an excellent job of illustrating how Lubbock County is working in an across-the-board (in the academic world, you might say interdisciplinary) way to address a serious problem: mentally ill people in jail. In fact, the County started coordinating MHMR, the courts, and the Sheriff’s office in the late 1990s when David Gutierrez became Sheriff.
Thanks in part to Ronald Reagan’s dumping of mentally ill people on the street, jails have become de facto mental health institutions, a task for which they are wholly unsuited. Tracking of mentally ill inmates only started recently, but anywhere from 30-70 percent (I know that’s a big range, but that’s what I heard from the panel) of inmates are in jail due to issues from mental illness or substance abuse. Most of these inmates are in jail for nonviolent misdemeanors. Also, mentally ill or substance-abusing inmates are often “frequent flyers” who, for lack of community resources and specialized programs, return to jail multiple times or remain in jail longer than necessary. In fact, the Lubbock County Jail has a few mentally ill inmates that have been there as long as seven years due to competency issues.
The courts add an additional — but necessary! — layer of difficulty with this issue of competency. The law says that a person has to be competent to stand trial. “Competent” means that they can take care of themselves physically and that they understand their situation; competency has nothing to do with sanity/insanity, which come into play at the end of a trial. For example, a defendant with mental illness or substance abuse problems may be “off meds” on their trial date; legally, they have to resume treatment before the trial can continue. Due to scheduling issues, this process can repeat itself multiple times, resulting in a legal black hole of sorts.
There are several good reforms that would help, most of which are on their way to Lubbock County:
- At least one dedicated officer 24/7 who is trained to handle mental health issues at the time of arrest — Lubbock County Sheriff’s office has one such officer available weekdays 9-6, which is a good start
- a non-jail or specialized-jail facility to house mentally ill inmates, also available 24/7 — the new Lubbock County Jail will feature a housing section for mentally ill inmates; only a few other jails in Texas have a similar facility
- ID and assessment of mentally ill inmates as they are booked into jail — also in the works
- a court that specializes in mental health issues — coming in January with a caseload of 10-15 people
- prosecutors who are aware of mental health and substance abuse issues and options — The staff member from the civil division of the DA’s office (who was on the panel) is one such prosecutor
- a mental illness defenders’ office with equally qualified defense attorneys
- probation officers who can handle mentally ill probationers — Lubbock County has at least two such probation officers already
And there are a myriad of community resources that can be more tightly integrated with this process too. As I said earlier, the Sheriff’s office and MHMR have been working together on tackling this problem for over ten years. Now, LPD is coming on board as well. With the mental health court coming online in January, Lubbock County can improve this situation and be a leader in the state.
By the way, Mary Gerlach from MHMR also recommended a book for approaching/understanding the issues of mental health and the criminal justice system: Crazy by Pete Earley.