Data backs Texas jail diversion effort to help mentally ill, officials say

The pilot aims to get people with serious mental health issues out of the jail on bond and connect them with support services to ensure they return for their court appearances


By Mary Huber
Austin American-Statesman

TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas — Defendants with mental health issues who successfully completed a Travis County pilot program that diverted them from jail into treatment programs were significantly less likely to be arrested again, data presented Tuesday to county leaders found.

The pilot, which began in 2016 as a collaboration between the county's Pretrial Services Department and the health authority Travis County Integral Care, aims to get people with serious mental health issues out of the jail on bond and connect them with support services to ensure they return for their court appearances.

As Travis County commissioners evaluated the effectiveness of a jail diversion program Tuesday, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said: "I have no doubt in my mind that y'all have moved the needle on it. I just don't know how much." [ELI IMADALI/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]
As Travis County commissioners evaluated the effectiveness of a jail diversion program Tuesday, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said: "I have no doubt in my mind that y'all have moved the needle on it. I just don't know how much." [ELI IMADALI/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Many of these defendants often remain in jail because attorneys are concerned they will disappear or that they would be a threat to themselves or others if released.

According to data presented at Tuesday's Travis County Commissioner's Court meeting, 177 inmates with mental health issues were released from jail through the bond program in its first three years. Of those who completed the program, 48% were arrested again within one year, compared with 78% who did not complete the program, the data found.

Of those who were released, 72% showed up for all their court appearances, and 67% did not have a new offense while waiting for their cases to close. Additionally, 61% were connected to ongoing care services, 70% were on some kind of insurance, and 50% received substance abuse treatment, though it is not clear how many already had access to these services, Integral Care said.

The data presented Tuesday also did not include comparisons to defendants with mental health issues who did not participate in the program, to see if those released under the pilot were less likely to re-offend than other defendants with mental health issues.

"We need to establish some kind of control group so we can see a benchmark with which to measure," Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. "I have no doubt in my mind that y'all have moved the needle on it. I just don't know how much."

According to the Travis County sheriff's office, about 20% of the jail's roughly 2,100 inmates require treatment for mental health issues.

"This is a population that consumes a lot of resources in the jail. They are on very expensive medications. They are in smaller housing; guards are watching them. We are spending a lot of money as a county to house them," Austin-based attorney William Browning told county commissioners. "By getting them out of jail, that is relieving those resources from the county jail to use on other inmates. ... I think from a budgetary point of view, this program is saving us a lot more than we are spending on it."

Results of the pilot were requested two weeks ago by commissioners when pretrial services asked that the pilot be made permanent, which would cost the county $128,000 in its first year.

At that time, commissioners were concerned about a lack of hard data showing the pilot's success. Staffers only had numbers on how many people had participated in the program but no information about whether they had made their court appearances or had been arrested again.

Despite this, the Commissioners Court still approved the requested interlocal agreement with Integral Care to make the pilot a formal program, but it has yet to decide whether it will fund it for fiscal 2020. That decision will be made during budget talks as the county anticipates slower revenue growth in future years because of a state-imposed revenue cap that goes into effect in January.

"We are entering an era of extreme limitations on our ability to raise revenue," Commissioner Brigid Shea said Tuesday. "We are having to look at everything we spend money on and ask, 'Is this the most efficient thing to spend money on?'"

Shea raised concerns about similar programs that may provide duplicate services, such as Pay for Success, a city program that has identified 250 of the most frequent visitors to hospitals and jails and will connect them with permanent housing. Travis County has put $3 million toward that program.

"I just want to make sure we aren't duplicating services," Shea said.

Pilot workers said the mental health bond program focuses primarily on short-term care, to make sure mentally ill defendants show up for court appearances and connect them with things like transportation, substance abuse treatment and psychiatric care. Pay for Success focuses on more long-term housing needs, they said.

"We've got various actors in this arena trying to fix issues client by client by client," Eckhardt said. "The likelihood of one silver bullet is improbable."

©2019 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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