At any one time in the Harris County jail, one quarter of the inmates are taking psychiatric medicine.
That’s about 2,200 inmates, and Sheriff Adrian Garcia says that’s too many.
Many of the inmates only end up in jail because they could not control their behaviors because of mental illness.
“The Harris County sheriff’s Office has had the regretful infamy of being also the largest mental health institution in the state of Texas. That’s ridiculous. We want the jailhouse to be the place where we have the people that we’re afraid of, not the people who are sick.”
State Sen. Joan Huffman, a Republican, sponsored the legislation to address the issue.
It brings $5 million to the county to deal with the problem.
Huffman’s district includes part of Harris County.
The county already has a group of deputies, called the crisis intervention team, that gets sent to incidents where it seems a person may be acting out due to mental illness.
But the new program would provide more services.
For example, when a mentally ill inmate gets released from the jail, the county would work to find him a bed in a treatment center.
“This is intended to make sure that if that one facility that we know about may be full, then we don’t resort to the jailhouse but rather that there’s a way to identify what other beds are available in the community. It might cause us to drive a little further, but at the end of the day it’s still getting that person to the right services.”
A study found that in a two-year period, more than 900 inmates had been in and out of the county jail at least five times. Some had cycled through up to 30 times.
The study found that more than half of these “frequent fliers” had a mental illness.
“The mentally ill have been with us and they’re not going away. And so we have to really think about this and understand that handcuffs and jail cells is not the way to deal with this illness.”
In previous years, the state has cut spending on mental health.
But this year legislators increased spending on the mentally ill by 17 percent.