County brings common sense to mental health crises
The Houston Chronicle—September 7th, 2012
Medically and technologically, U.S. mental health advances in the past 50 years have been revolutionary. But applying those advances to law enforcement lags far behind – notably in Texas.
Though administrators don’t want it that way, the Harris County jail is a de facto mental hospital. Almost 25 percent of its inmates, many of them nonviolent, suffer from mental illness requiring psychotropic medicines.
That’s why Sheriff Adrian Garcia and Harris County commissioners merit attention for modernizing the county’s approach to nonviolent residents involved in emergency calls. A year ago, the commissioners approved Garcia’s proposal to launch three crisis intervention response teams – called CIRTs – in the county’s unincorporated zones. The population in these areas is vast: 1.5 million people, projected to equal that of Houston’s in less than a decade. But until last year, a 911 call involving a mental health crisis often resulted in jail time – or release of a sick person, untreated, back to the community.
Each crisis team includes one law enforcement officer paired with one expert from the county’s Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority. Together, these duos evaluate calls or on-site crises that appear to involve mental illness. If the MHMRA official deems it appropriate, the nonviolent, mentally ill resident is escorted to mental facilities – not jail.
Steering these ill residents to health care, not punishment, briskly stewards tax dollars. First, The model is a proven success: The Houston Police Department launched similar teams about four years ago, which have earned national acclaim.
Diverting mentally ill residents this way spares all of us the cost of inappropriately housing them in jails. It’s certainly far better for the patients themselves, who are oftentimes unable to grasp why they’ve been locked up.
Above all, though, the community itself is safer when authorities treat – rather than criminalize – nonviolent mental illness.
So far the county’s version of the program has been promising. Wisely pooling efforts with the city, the sheriff’s department and HPD treat the combined crisis teams as one unit. Ten HPD teams share the workload with the three county teams; all can answer calls where and when necessary.
Since October 2011, the county’s crisis teams have answered about 1,500 mental health calls in the unincorporated areas. In about 150 cases, the law enforcers steered the subjects to hospitals or other forms of help.
When you calculate that each day in the Harris County jail costs taxpayers $45 per inmate, and that the average stay for inmates is 28 days, reducing even the shorter terms for mentally ill suspects starts to look thrifty indeed.
In austere times, leaders often have to choose between what is humane and what’s simply economical. By adopting crisis intervention teams in Harris County, Garcia and the commissioners have admirably achieved both objectives.