As County Jails Fill Up, Texas Lawmakers Look for Alternatives
In response to overcrowding and budget cuts, Texas officials are looking for alternatives to institutions like the Harris County Jail (center) for holding the homeless, addicted and mentally ill. Photo by David Ortez, used via Flickr/Creative Commons.
By Brittney Martin
For Reporting Texas and the Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers are focusing on the struggle of county jails, which have become expensive holding areas for the addicted, homeless and mentally ill in a time of reduced budgets and cut programs.
As clogged county jails become a chronic problem throughout the state, the House County Affairs Committee is conducting hearings in Houston on Tuesday to look for ways to detour those in need of treatment to cheaper and more effective alternatives.
“These are people that, before their illness or addiction, wouldn’t be in jail,” said County Affairs chairman Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. “We need to have programs in place to keep them out the first time, get them treatment if they are arrested, and get them stabilized so they don’t go back ever.”
In Dallas County, studies show an average of 15 percent of the jail population is homeless. The problems of diverting them and others from incarceration are compounded by budget constraints, said Ron Stretcher, the county’s director of criminal justice.
The homeless falling into county jails is a “constant struggle,” Stretcher said.
The county probation department tries to get those who need help into treatment programs, “but there’s not enough dollars for those treatment beds,” Stretcher said.
More than 300 people locked in county jail daily are waiting treatment program openings, he said.
The county spends about $15 million annually to jail homeless individuals, while diversion programs are more beneficial and cheaper, according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, an Austin-based interest group.
Dallas County has several diversion courts for cases involving mental illness, drugs, prostitution and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
And it has a working relationship with the Bridge, a program of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance.
Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and Houston Mayor Annise Parker are scheduled to testify Tuesday about Harris County’s efforts to reduce its jail population.
Like Dallas, Harris County has implemented special courts and provided more treatment and counseling to troubled inmates.
Alan Bernstein, director of public affairs at the Harris County Sheriff’s Department, said the county last October began pairing officers with mental health clinicians to evaluate offenders thought to have disorders.
In non-violent crimes with low-risk offenders, the clinicians help decide whether jail, a psychiatric clinic or state mental facility would be best. They also help link-in private insurance, if applicable, Bernstein said.
County officials are lining up behind the pragmatism that, “there are many situations in which providing treatment in lieu of incarceration saves money for tax payers and makes Harris County safer,” Bernstein said.
The hearing in Houston follows similar meetings in El Paso and Austin. Coleman said his committee will make legislative recommendations in December.