Stop giving mental health care to county jails

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About a third of Texas psychiatric beds are offline.

Industries everywhere are mired in staff shortages. But the problems of the state mental hospital network are particularly harrowing, with significant repercussions for patients, jailers and taxpayers.

It’s a puzzle with no simple solution. Still, state lawmakers must step in to help counties with a growing load of mental health cases. The status quo is unacceptable.

On Thursday, nearly 400 people from the Dallas County Jail were waiting for a bed in a psychiatric hospital. This is because the courts had deemed these detainees incompetent, meaning they were not well enough to participate in their defense due to mental illness. Although some can afford treatment in a private facility, most of them have no choice but to go to a public hospital to recover.

Still, the state government cannot staff about a third of its psychiatric beds, according to a presentation to lawmakers in late June. Texas therefore shifts the burden to county jails, which have no choice but to house inmates until they can be placed in a state hospital or, in some cases, until that they’ve been behind bars for so long that they’ve essentially served time for a crime they weren’t convicted of.

The latter occurred with misdemeanor cases. Under these circumstances, the cases are dismissed and the detainees are released from prison. But then they don’t get the health care that could restore them and help them avoid another run-in with the law.

Dallas County wait times provide a picture of the seriousness of the situation. Inmates waiting for a bed in a non-maximum-security hospital waited approximately 20 days in 2017; now they are waiting 353 days. For men, the current wait is 401 days.

Men who need a bed in a maximum security hospital wait 822 days.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who oversees the county’s prison population committee, estimates the delays cost county taxpayers about $13.5 million.

In Dallas, a new state mental hospital is about three years away. Officials said this week that the distribution of beds for skill restoration and for the general population has yet to be determined.

State legislators should collect and review data on prison wait times and outcomes from the mental health diversion services in which they have invested heavily in recent years. Are the programs successful and people enrolling? If not, what happens?

And we urge them to take action to ease the burden on county jails.

“We understand the labor challenges,” Dallas County Deputy Administrator Charles Reed told lawmakers at a recent hearing. “We get it; we’re going through the same thing…but it rings a little hollow for us because we don’t have anyone else to pass the blame on to.”

— Dallas Morning News, July 22

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