Travis County jail faces growing mental health crisis
Thursday, January 7, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard
Travis County has seen an astonishing rise in the number of inmates dealing with mental health issues in the past decade.
That message was the thrust of a lengthy briefing delivered to the Commissioners Court on Tuesday by a broad coalition of county officials and community stakeholders, including Austin Travis County Integral Care and the Capital Area Private Defender Service.
“(Travis County is) the largest provider of mental health care in the region as a jail and a court system,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt explained before inviting the assembled experts to update the court on their findings.
Danny Smith, the counseling and education manager at the Sheriff’s Office, began the presentation with a graph that illustrated the trend. In October 2006, according to the graph, there were just over 350 Travis County inmates dealing with mental health issues. By October 2015, that number had jumped to over 550.
Smith added that the number for December, which wasn’t included in the graph, stood at 676 inmates.
Smith credited a good chunk of the recent jump to more rigorous screening standards freshly implemented by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. As for the general increase over the past 10 years, Smith pointed to a variety of reasons, including the increasing popularity of synthetic drugs and the closing of group homes that provide a backstop for county residents with mental health issues.
“Despite all the diversion efforts we have in Travis County, the Sheriff’s Office still has to treat these people that are coming (into) the jail,” Smith explained. He told the court to count on a request from Sheriff Greg Hamilton later this year for more money to hire several new full-time mental health professionals to keep up with growing demand.
Eckhardt acknowledged that the search for solutions will be ongoing and said she expects the court to take action throughout 2016. “We’re all in this together,” she said as she closed the discussion.
Seated in the back throughout the briefing was Constable Sally Hernandez, a candidate for Travis County sheriff. The issue of mental health in the jail system is one that Hernandez and her three Democratic opponents have all highlighted in some form or another during the campaign.
Asked for her reaction to Tuesday’s briefing, Hernandez told the Austin Monitor, “Our jail is not a mental health facility and should not be used as a default treatment center. Criminalizing mental illness is expensive, it is ineffective, and it is wrong.”
Hernandez said that, if elected as sheriff, she would partner with community stakeholders to focus on diversion efforts including “health services, mental health training, secure housing and re-entry programs.”
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