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Travis County to launch $23 million project to keep mentally ill from jail

By Stephen Simpson, The Texas Tribune

Travis County to launch $23 million project to keep mentally ill from jail” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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For years, veteran Texas sheriffs like Travis County’s Sally Hernandez have watched how countless tax dollars are spent to break the endless cycle of taking mentally ill or intoxicated individuals who commit minor crimes to treatment or the jail, only to see them released within hours.

Someone might be screaming in the middle of a street, or harassing others, or urinating in public while suffering the effects of untreated mental illness or substance use. While these criminal infractions are minor in the grand scheme of things, they do require law enforcement’s attention. So where to take the suspect? Jail or a mental health facility? Either way, these arrested suspects are out within hours after they are first taken into custody.

“The frustration on the law enforcement end is that we have nowhere to take them,” Hernandez said.

Travis County has tried almost everything from teaming up with the county mental health provider and hotlines to training programs for law enforcement to having the county jail staffed with various health care professionals.

However, the main problem is that the same individuals will continue to cycle in and out of these programs only to get stabilized for a few days, weeks, or months before being released back into the “real” world to spiral again.

So when Travis County Judge Andy Brown called a breakfast meeting earlier this month at Austin’s St. David Episcopal Church to discuss in detail a plan to build a mental health diversion center for those arrested who are in crisis – starting first with a pilot program to begin in March – Hernandez was one of about 50 advocates and government officials sitting in the audience to hear more.

“We’re trying to find the perfect model for Austin and Travis County. And we’ve seen some awe-inspiring results in other cities across the country,” Brown said, detailing the success rates of similar diversion efforts outside of Texas. “In all these places, we’ve seen people getting services that they need and, in turn, making their community safer. We need to start setting people on a better path.”

Andy Brown speaks on a panel on Feb. 7, 2024. Brown is a Judge for the Travis County Commissioners Court.
Andy Brown speaks on Feb 7 at a panel in downtown Austin. “We’re trying to find the perfect model for Austin and Travis County. And we’ve seen some awe-inspiring results in other cities across the country,” Brown said. Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

In Miami, he told the group, $4 million a year was saved because low-level criminal suspects with mental illness were not taken to jail. He said that Nashville officials are reporting that up to 80% of those individuals taken in by their diversion programs don’t return to jail.

Next month, Travis County, in partnership with county mental health provider Integral Care, will launch the first phase of its own version of a jail diversion initiative with a $23 million three-year pilot program.

Once launched, law enforcement officers and paramedics will be able to quickly drop off someone in crisis and stabilize them at a former walk-in crisis clinic on Austin’s east side, instead of taking them to jail.

The first phase of the pilot is expected to give Travis County some much-needed data on mental health needs in the Austin area.

As a part of this $23 million effort, Integral Care will also create a 90-day care and treatment program at their 25-bed facility at the Genevieve Tarlton Hearon Respite Recovery building in downtown Austin to allow potential caregivers time to formulate a plan for their loved ones.

Eventually, the county wants to build a more permanent and larger facility. It hopes to seek bids for such a structure by the end of the year. But it’s not clear when construction would start or be completed. Right now the county is considering whether to renovate existing facilities or construct a new central booking facility with a diversion center attached this year.

County officials are hopeful a more permanent structure would be ready to open by 2029 or 2030.

Brown said he hopes the county could incorporate a housing program and additional crisis services within the diversion center itself.

According to law enforcement officials, housing and additional crisis services would be key.

“It’s not uncommon for a person to come to jail, get stabilized, and be re-arrested shortly after that because they choose not to continue their care or they have other priorities like survival on the streets,” Hernandez said.

Tamara Needles moderates a panel including Andy Brown, Ann Howard and Sally Hernandez about the launch of Travis County’s Mental Health Diversion Pilot and the plans for a permanent Mental Health Diversion Center.
The panelists met at St. David Episcopal Church to discuss the first phase of the pilot program, which is expected to give Travis County some much-needed data on mental health needs in the Austin area. Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

What law enforcement faces now

For years, Travis County has tried to address the problem of mentally ill suspects by tapping existing services like crisis centers and hotlines. It has worked to improve training for law enforcement and has the county jail staffed with a clinical psychiatrist, licensed counselors, social workers, and contracted nurse practitioners and psychologists.

Still, the same individuals continue to cycle through, stabilized for a short time before being released only to have their conditions worsen.

“We need another option. We need hope for those with mental illness and for our officers,” Hernandez said.

The problem is more acute as Travis County’s jail population is on the rise.

Sally Hernandez smiles as she is introduced as a panelist on Feb. 7, 2024. Hernandez is a Travis County Sheriff.
Hernandez smiles as she is introduced as a panelist during last month’s meeting. She believes the county’s mental health diversion initiative has potential to end the cycle she has witnessed for decades. Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

In the month of December, 2,343 people were booked into the jail, up from the previous high of 2,100 in December 2019. County data shows that the annual number of bookings into the jail have steadily increased over the past few years, with the highest number reaching 28,828 in 2023, a significant jump from 22,068 bookings in 2021.

Brown said that since the pandemic the number of people who have a mental health issue who are jailed has also increased. Today, about 44% of the people booked into the Travis County jail on any given day have a mental health issue, he said.

“This has put a strain on staffing the jail,” Brown said.

Hernandez believes the county’s mental health diversion initiative has potential to end the cycle she has witnessed for decades. But she has stressed it needs more services on the backend, to help an individual once they are released from treatment.

“If we don’t keep these things a priority, then we will just be building another new facility to shove the mentally ill in, and the cycle continues,” Hernandez said.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/02/26/texas-travis-county-jail-mental-health/.

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