Local program helps arrested people with mental illness

HOUSTON – A local program aims to divert people with mental illness from the Harris County jail to a center for mental health treatment.

“I was told that he had a panic disorder. He couldn’t be alone,” said former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

Emmett’s father lived with mental illness his entire life.

“If he looked less than a mid-level oil company employee, he would’ve been arrested for vagrancy. He would’ve been one of those people in the jail,” Emmett said.

The alarming truth is that Harris County Jail is the largest mental health facility in Texas.

“People’s lives are being ruined because they’re in the criminal justice system rather than the mental health system,” Emmett said.

According to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, the total jail population this week was more than 8,700 inmates. Seventy-six percent of those have a mental health indicator and 33 percent are taking medicine for mental illness.

Emmett worked with other leaders to launch the jail diversion program in 2018 and since then, it has served 4,500 people. Instead of going to jail, law enforcement officers take people with low-level, non-violent offenses to the Judge Ed Emmett Mental Health Diversion Center. The Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD manages it.

“We’ll give them a robust set of behavioral supports and services and ultimately try to change their trajectory,” said Chief Operating Officer Wayne Young.

Officers divert them to the center even before charges.

“There’s nothing on their record. There’s nothing that they have to go back to court for, so all of these services are going to continue to support them,” Young said.

The center has 36 beds and 50 staff members, including nurses, counselors and psychiatrists.

“A few years ago, they would’ve absolutely gone to jail and instead we’ve gotten them help and have a lot of great outcomes,” Young said.

A study showed the program cut down new charges in those diverted by 50% and those with more than five arrests were 3.1 times less likely to be arrested again. The program has also saved money. For every dollar spent on diversion, the county avoids spending $5.54 on criminal justice costs.

Emmett said state funding is needed to help more.

“It just has to be treated like healthcare, it’s not anything different. The more we can build facilities to deal with that, the better off we’ll be,” Emmett said.

Young stressed the people diverted had not committed violent offenses and had any warrants.

The Harris Center was also working with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office on launching another pilot program for people with mental illness to get help after they’ve been released from jail.

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