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Carlos B. Lopez, Constable

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Constable's Notebook - September 2010

Last month the San Antonio Express News reported that at least 16% of all inmates in Texas jails are mentally ill. That comes as no surprise to law enforcement officers who arrest people every day who exhibit signs of mental illness. Because mental health beds are so scarce in Travis County and throughout Texas, officers are forced to book mentally ill prisoners into jail or take them to hospital emergency rooms if necessary. Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton says because of the lack of available mental health beds he runs the largest mental health institution in Travis County. That claim is backed by a recent Virginia based Treatment Advocacy Center study which found that “nationwide, more mentally ill people are in jails than hospitals.”

Offenders with mental health issues are arrested more frequently and due to a lack of treatment beds spend far more time in jail than other offenders. The Mental Health Association in Texas reports that it costs about six times as much to incarcerate mentally ill prisoners than to treat them, but since 1990 the average daily population in state mental hospitals has dropped by more than 40% while the number of prisoners with some form of mental illness has increased by about 500%.

State officials are attempting to address this growing crisis. Last year the Texas Legislature passed a bill that requires psychiatric exams for every inmate suspected of having mental illness. The San Antonio Express News report discovered that the new law, viewed by many as another unfunded mandate placed on counties, is being ignored by some counties including Bexar County. Travis County officials are conducting the exams. But it might not matter much because the Texas Department of State Health Services has proposed a 10% reduction in treatment beds that would result in fewer inmates receiving treatment, longer lines for those who are treated who will and longer stays in jail at a cost to taxpayers of about $50 per inmate per day.

Texas officials have a long history of shortchanging state mental health services and shifting the burden to cities and counties. The Lone Star State ranks 49th in the nation in mental health funding and while some officials like to brag about keeping state taxes low, any bragging rights for saving a few dollars on our tax bills are far outweighed by the more than $16 billion annual “hidden tax” impact of untreated mental illness in Texas.

Legislation requiring psychiatric exams for inmates without providing treatment beds is like making a cancer diagnosis but not making cancer treatment available. We know what will happen. Mentally ill people who are not diagnosed and treated will not get better and housing them in local jails won’t make them better. With the proper diagnoses, treatment and medication many if not most people with mental illness are able within varying degrees to take care of themselves and work. The Legislature should not consider their work done next year until they improve mental health care services in Texas. Providing less assistance to our most vulnerable citizens than all but one other state is really nothing to brag about.



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