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Despite high arrest rate, county leaders give high marks to jail diversion program

Thursday, August 29, 2019 by Jack Craver

A majority of criminal defendants who participated in a county pilot program aimed at getting people with mental illness out of jail and into treatment were rearrested within a year of their release. Yet, many involved in the criminal justice system say the program has been a success.

For three and a half years, Travis County has operated a pilot program with Integral Care that targets defendants with serious mental issues awaiting trial who would typically be denied release due to doubts that they will show up on their court date. In the pilot, many of these defendants are granted release on a “personal bond,” which does not require posting bail, and they are directed to intensive mental health treatment services.

Two weeks ago, the Travis County Commissioners Court took an important step toward making the program permanent when it approved an interlocal agreement with Integral Care. However, the commissioners said they wanted to see more data on the performance of the pilot before committing to funding it.

Here were the key data staff members presented Tuesday on the 244 people who participated in the program:

  • 70 percent successfully completed the treatment program
  • 72 percent showed up for their court dates
  • 33 percent committed another offense before their initial criminal case was resolved
  • 57 percent were arrested again within a year

Those who successfully completed the treatment program were far less likely to be arrested in the next year (48 percent) than those who dropped out (78 percent).

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt acknowledged that a 57 percent recidivism rate didn’t look great, at least on its face, but wondered how it compared to offenders in general or offenders dealing with mental health problems. It would be great to be able to compare the program’s performance to a “control group,” she said.

“I know that if we had a control (group) the numbers would be a lot worse,” William Browning, a local defense attorney, told the Commissioners Court on Tuesday. “These are people who have almost constant contact with the criminal justice system.”

Echoing that sentiment was Judge Leon Grizzard, who oversees the county’s “specialty docket,” which is largely focused on defendants with mental health issues.

“The people who are served by this program are the most challenging people to consider releasing on bond,” he said. “They are oftentimes homeless, oftentimes are not consistent or can’t be relied upon to follow through in terms of their medical appointments and so forth so they are very likely to fall back into crisis state and be arrested again.”

The majority of people arrested in Travis County are released from jail while awaiting trial on a personal bond, which does not require any cash bail. The county’s pretrial services division recommends release on personal bond based on an assessment of the defendant’s likelihood of showing up for their court date as well as any risk they present to others.

When a judge approves release on personal bond, it is because the judge believes the individual will likely show up for his or her court date. It does not mean the judge believes the individual will never offend again.

“I’m much more willing to take a chance if it’s a drug possession case or a theft case or a forgery case or something like that,” said Grizzard. “Everybody who is a drug addict who is released on bond, it’s highly likely they are going to buy drugs again, but that does not present a direct public safety threat.”

Grizzard said getting nonviolent defendants out of jail and connecting them to mental health services can help the county achieve better outcomes in the long term. He told the story of one perennial defendant who was arrested a few more times after being enrolled in the program but eventually stabilized and now runs his own business repairing smartphone screens.

The commissioners appeared to respond positively to the data, suggesting they will continue to support the program in the foreseeable future.

This story has been changed to correct a typo. The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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