Harris County Kicks Off Crisis Intervention Pilot Program

It's about treating the mentally ill — not jailing them. Harris County Commissioners approve a joint agreement between the city and county to operate Crisis Intervention Response Teams.

It’s become a sad reality. Jails and prisons have become the mental hospitals of today. Studies show that over a half-million people in jails and prisons across the country have mental illness. Many are jailed for nonviolent offenses.

Harris County Commissioner’s Court has approved a pilot project between the Sheriff’s Department, Houston Police and the Mental Health and Mental Retardation of Harris County. Sheriff Adrian Garcia says he will hire three deputies to respond to calls in the unincorporated parts of Harris County.

“We have seen the City of Houston’s program, that 10 officers working in its process have been able to jail divert approximately two thousand persons. So we are approximating that our three deputies will contribute an additional 30 percent to that process.”

Garcia says the CIRT program has been in place with HPD for several years now. Lt. Mike Lee with the Department’s Mental Health Unit says its time that Harris County residents got the same service as well.

“CIRT does a fantastic job of trying to determine the role of mental illness at a situation when someone’s committed an offense, whether its a minor offense or a major offense. And they do a fantastic job of working with the victim, the district attorney, and of course the mentally ill person, in trying to determine what’s the best outcome for that situation.”

Barbara Dawson is deputy director of Harris County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority. She says CIRT has worked well with the Houston Police Department.

“Only about one percent of the calls that the CIRT teams go out on, currently end up needing to go to jail. Another 30 percent are detained and brought in to our psychiatric emergency service, and then the rest of them they can either resolve on the scene, or they can make recommendations of what needs to happen next, and they don’t have to take them to jail, and they don’t have to bring them to us, and they don’t have to go to the hospital.”

Sheriff Garcia says the savings to Harris County will be significant.

“We’re calculating over 2-million dollars in savings just in jail operations. But don’t forget that there are also savings on the court side of the world, less folks on the dockets. We believe that this could also have a positive impact on the hospital system.”

The county’s three CIRT team units would add to the round-the-clock coverage now provided by the ten units in operation by the Houston Police Department.