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Travis County, Texas, Efforts to Keep Mentally Ill Individuals Out of Jail Face Funding, Infrastructure, and Information Management Challenges

by Jo Ellen Nott

Travis County is in Central Texas, 150 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. The city of Austin, the state capital and county seat, sits at the intersection of three major highways. Its population in 2021 was 1.305 million. The Travis County Jail shares a problem with jails nationwide: They have become first responders for individuals suffering from mental health crises, a task they are not equipped to handle and, like most jails, warehouse individuals who are in dire need of treatment, not punishment.

Danny Smith is the Travis County Jail’s director of mental health services. Over the last 10 years, Smith has seen the number of people with mental health issues held in the jail climb from 15 to 40%. Travis County Judge Andy Brown says the jail is the largest mental health facility in Travis County, and in this regard, the county is not unique. Its numbers are consistent with the rest of the country’s jails according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Looking at booking data from 2018-2022, most charges this population had against them were for nonviolent misdemeanors like criminal trespassing, and only 7% were for assault. The key component to keeping these mostly non-violent individuals out of jail, where they often sit for months while their mental health worsens significantly, is diverting them from ever being booked in the first place. 

In March 2023, the Travis County Commissioners Court voted to begin planning a new booking facility and diversion center after seeing the results of a report from the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, Austin, about the county’s forensic mental health system. The new booking facility and diversion center will expand the existing and inadequate framework of help now used by Travis County – The Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach Team and Project Engage for teenagers.

The first diversion option Travis County has for 911 is the Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach Team (“EMCOT”) operated by Integral Care, the county’s mental health authority. EMCOT can connect the person with local hospitals or crisis residential services before police are involved, but there are only 87 total beds in the system.

A quick glance at the Travis County Jail’s interactive website on May 17, 2023, showed 2,159 people in the lockup. If 40% suffer from mental health issues, at least 860 probably qualify for diversion if EMCOT were up to speed. Admission restrictions and understaffing problems plague the team, making the 87 beds hard to access. Understaffing also handicaps EMCOT from delivering on its promise of 90 days of follow-up. Even the Austin 911 Call Center is only half-staffed, making it difficult for people to even start the process of being referred to EMCOT. 

Two other problems make it difficult for the mentally ill in Travis County to get the help they need. First, county departments do not collaborate in sharing data, slowing the process of connecting an individual with services. When the process breaks down, individuals suffering a mental health crisis or an ongoing battle with their illness frequently return to the streets or are criminally charged. And, if the individual is charged, there is no guarantee that a defense lawyer will be present. Without legal counsel, the odds are the person will take a plea or face the wrong charge. 

Harris County is on the upper Gulf Coast in Southeast Texas. The city of Houston is its county seat and is the largest city in Texas and the fourth largest in the U.S. Its population in 2021 was 4.728 million, making it at least three times more populous than Travis County.

Harris County, unlike Travis County, has one of the largest diversion programs in the state, the Harris Center. The Harris Center focuses its efforts mostly on pre-arrest diversion, which Travis County officials and advocates say is preferable to sending someone to a diversion center with an arrest record. The Harris Center has full-time 911 call center counselors, plus law enforcement and clinician co-response teams that make a diversion evaluation in real time.  

The Harris Center is voluntary, and the average length of stay is four to five days. Wayne Young, CEO of the Center, reports that only 15 percent of those they have helped have had repeat visits. An external study of the Harris Center found that those who completed a stay were “1.4 times less likely to be arrested again. Less than five percent of the cases where law enforcement and clinicians co-responded saw an arrest at all.”

According to The Texas Observer,the biggest problem Travis County faces in being able to operate a pre-booking diversion system like the Harris Center is its outdated system with a lack of data sharing. The executive director of the legal service which represents most of the adult indigent clients in the county says, “The booking process has a whole lot of paperwork flying, not a lot of electronics, and where there is electronic data, it’s very siloed.”

Without that centralized source of information on an individual, public defenders and private attorneys must function as that hub. A data use agreement is needed among courts, jails, law enforcement, mental health providers, housing providers, and local hospitals and clinics. If data were centralized, connecting a person with services could happen immediately, instead of after weeks or months needlessly spent in a lockup. 

Travis County Judge Andy Brown wants the county’s diversion program to move to a pre-arrest model as its end game but realizes the first step will be to provide individuals the therapy and stabilization they need post-arrest. To that end, Brown wants to use the diversion program that Nashville has. In Tennessee, the “patients are incentivized to complete a 14-day stay at the diversion center with the promise of their arrest expunged at the end.” Brown added that of course the county or district attorney should have the final say about whether the arrest would be expunged. Another positive of the two-week stay is that it gives the program more time and opportunity to find that individual supportive housing.

Travis County Attorney Delia Garza says promising expungement as an incentive to enter a diversion center program might be something the county could not guarantee. The best-case scenario, she believes, is dismissing the charge as soon as possible. Garza points out: “Once the magistrate has determined there was probable cause, it’s always kind of held over their head, and a complaint could be filed anytime within a two-year statute of limitations.” 

Garza is involved in a diversion program for 17- to 19-year-olds in Travis County called Project Engage, which offers programming for youthful offenders to better themselves and address root causes of crime. Charges are dismissed in exchange for participating in the program. Teenagers who enter Project Engage do community service, receive mentorship and counseling, and get help in résumé-building and job-finding.

Garza has recently expanded the program, adding the services of the nonprofit Life Anew, whose mission is “to guide young people through a process of restorative justice – one in which the defendant and the person whom they harmed both receive counseling and eventually meet so young defendants can make amends (if the victim is willing).”

With the Life Anew expansion, young participants will get free assistance from attorneys with Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas to help them expunge their criminal charges. Expungement is important to Garza because dismissed cases follow a young person into his or her future, affecting job and housing searches, whereas expungements are a permanent removal of involvement in the criminal legal system. 

Another problem the Travis County Jail faces in diverting people away from incarceration is the lack of physical space and adequate staffing for a lawyer to be present at the time of booking. Counsel at first appearance (“CAFA”) is a crucial piece to reducing the amount of people booked unnecessarily, but a 2022 CAFA pilot program lasted only nine days due to Central Booking’s physical design.

Grant funding from the pilot is still available, and the estimated cost for 24/7 representation is $4 million. The county can choose to do renovations at Central Booking or develop an alternative plan to run the CAFA program. All diversion center proponents agree that CAFA must be available to mentally ill individuals who have been picked up by law enforcement.

Judge Brown emphasized: “The more that we can do at the front end to divert people away, to make sure that they’re not being charged with a greater crime, all the benefits that come with having a lawyer advising you, will help reduce our jail population.” The diversion center in Travis County could cost $30 million to build and $5 million to operate – Brown has suggested the city of Austin or Central Health share the operating costs.

At the April 13, 2023, Austin City Council meeting, “the Council approved a resolution directing the City Manager to explore the feasibility of an interlocal agreement for the development of an Austin/Travis County Diversion Center, identify financial resources necessary to partner in developing a pilot for mental health diversion services and a bridge housing program, and provide updates to the Public Health Committee and a report to Council.”

Judge Brown spoke to The Texas Observer about the urgent need to get the Austin/Travis County Diversion up and running: “If we don’t do it now, I am afraid it will be another five or ten years.” Kathy Mitchell, a longtime justice advocate in Austin, also told The Observer: “We have virtually no alternative to police simply taking you to jail because there’s nowhere else to take you. Would I like to see all the care provided out of the criminal justice system? Yes, I would. Are we doing that? If we’re not, as long as we’re not putting people in jail, [diversion is] a big step up.”

It remains to be seen if the Austin City Manager and Council can marshal the resources and have the political will to make mental health diversion services a reality and keep the mentally ill of Travis County out of the criminal justice system.   

Sources: Austin Chronicle, Austin Texas.gov, Texas Almanac, The Texas Observer

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