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County seeks to expand mental health care for those facing incarceration

Tuesday, January 11, 2022 by Seth Smalley

Nearly 20 percent of inmates booked into Travis County jails in September 2021 needed mental health treatment, but a month after their incarceration, only a third of them were receiving the needed treatment.

That was the conclusion reached by Dr. Steve Strakowski, associate vice president for regional mental health at Dell Medical School, who examined the planning process for clinical and legal care for individuals who interact with the county’s criminal justice and mental health systems.

“We’ve struggled for years to try and figure out how to keep people whose main problem is either undiagnosed or poorly treated mental health issues out of our jails,” Commissioner Brigid Shea told Strakowski at a discussion last Tuesday. “We haven’t been successful. We’ve tried all kinds of different approaches so I appreciate you stepping up.”

Strakowski found that the systems that usually handle these kinds of patients are currently overwhelmed. In November, 74 people were on the waitlist for the Austin State Hospital and the average wait for admission was 92 days.

“Throughout this time, there have been ongoing efforts locally to try to resolve this challenge of managing people who are ending up in jail or the criminal justice system, who need mental health care, some of whom almost certainly would have been better managed outside the criminal justice system,” Strakowski said. “Unfortunately we just haven’t been able to get these efforts aligned in order to create some significant forward movement. And so that’s really what we’re proposing to try to organize and do today.”

The expected timeline for project planning is six to eight months. Committees are being established, and the vision, mission and core principles of the project will be ready before the end of February. Strakowski expects the working group to present its findings and recommendations to commissioners by August.

County Judge Andy Brown said, “I’m excited about the possibility that the steering committee can help shape our common vision, so that we can really thoughtfully invest in people and services in this community and build the mental and behavioral health system that we really need to prevent people from entering our jail system.”

“We do have a lot of resources, a lot of people interested in this field,” Commissioner Margaret Gómez added. “We need something like this to kind of bring everything together, not under anybody else but together so we can touch every part of the community with these services.”

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0.

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