Dealing With Mentally Ill Offenders

August 17, 2016 by

Montgomery County is poised to be the eighth county in the Lone Star State to open a court specifically dedicated to dealing with mentally ill offenders. The purpose of the mental health court is to treat, instead of imprison, nonviolent mentally ill offenders in attempts to reduce their chance of reoffending.

With criminal justice reform gaining national attention in recent years, the trend of establishing mental health courts has steadily grown in many states, but has lagged in Texas where only eight of the state’s 254 counties have taken advantage of the new practice.

Given that one in every five prisoners in a local jail has recently suffered from some sort of mental health episode, this is vital. These mental health courts are modeled after the rise of drugs courts and there are more than 300 reported in the U.S. now.

Texas has nearly 200 specialty courts covering everything from veterans to prostitution. By providing treatment rather than merely incarcerating nonviolent offenders with an underlying problem, these courts are able to cut incarceration costs, improve individual outcomes, and reduce recidivism.

Mentally ill inmates sue the state

Montgomery County’s new court comes at an interesting time. Disability Rights Texas (DRT) just filed a lawsuit on behalf of 280 mentally ill detainees against the Texas Department of State Health Services claiming that the department is violating their civil rights by detaining them in prison, rather than placing them in mental health facilities for treatment.

Many suspects found incompetent to stand trial, who should be innocent until proven guilty, are kept in prison. The individuals often don’t get the necessary help they need until they can get to a mental health facility as Texas law requires.

DRT said, “These incompetent detainees end up being confined in jail prior to adjudication and pending treatment longer than if they had been found guilty of the alleged crime.”

Now, to be exact. The Montgomery County Court is aimed at sending offenders to treatment rather than jail to reduce recidivism and get them proper treatment. The lawsuit on the other hand is aimed at fixing the practice of holding mentally ill suspects in prison as they wait for their court date.

But both address significant problems with the way mentally ill suspects and inmates are treated by the criminal justice system. By addressing the underlying problem of many offenders we can not only cut costs, but reduce recidivism simultaneously.

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.