Officials Want to Keep the Mentally Ill Out of Jail

According to figures presented by State Senator John Whitmire, about 32,000 Texas prison inmates have some sort of mental illness. 18,000 of those inmates are on medication. Houston District Court Judge Jan Krocker says the problem extends to the Harris County Jail.

"A study done in '09 shows that 24 percent of those in the jail are on psychotropic medications, and 80 percent of those with mental illness in the jail have been there before. So it's a real revolving door. "

Krocker presides over Harris County's Felony Mental Health Court. It's a voluntary program designed to keep mentally ill offenders from winding up behind bars. As part of their probation, offenders have to agree to follow a treatment plan. They have to meet frequently with the judge and their probation officer. They also have to take their medication.

"And the idea is, if they learn to manage their illness, that they'll never come back into the criminal justice system. The crime must be related to their mental illness to come into the court, and we take those with non-violent felonies."

The program was started earlier this year with the help of a federal grant. There are currently 45 participants. They range in age from 17 to 61. They all suffer from some sort of major mental illness, either schizphrenia, a major depressive disorder, or bipolar disorder.

Maureen Hackett with the Mental Health Court Foundation says they probably got into trouble because they weren't getting the resources they needed.

"Lack of insurance can certainly prevent you from getting the services that you need, and not knowing where to go, not knowing who to seek out for help."

Once people are admitted to the program they receive intensive psychiatric treatment, and that may include treatment for substance abuse. They also have to undergo random drug and alcohol testing.

"When you have a justice authority person telling you you must show up for therapy, the moment you don't show up for therapy you're out of this court system and you're on your own. Once again you're going to be in a very dark place without any help."

Court officials say those offenders have been in a dark place for much of their lives. Along with mental illness, they also struggle with issues such as physical and sexual abuse, and post-tramatic stress. But Hackett says it's important for people to know that mentally ill offenders can change.

"You know I hate to use the word stigma, but that's about what it is. Don't be judgemental before you know the full background of these individuals that are coming into the court."

Officials hope to expand the program to 80 participants by the end of the year. They're also looking at additional sources of funding.

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