Recent changes at the state and county level addressing inmates suffering from mental health issues protect not only those inmates but jail staff and other inmates, Johnson County officials said.

County and city jails, Johnson County Sheriff Adam King said, have been inundated with inmates suffering from mental health issues, and Johnson County is no exception.

“Because of cuts in state funding for mental health treatment and services in recent years the jails and the sheriffs have by default become mental health service providers,” King said. “While much of our staff is trained in how to identify and deal with people in those situations, we are not mental health providers nor should we be.”

The Johnson County Commissioners Court late last month approved a request by King to allow Pecan Valley MHMR to use office space at the Johnson County Jail to assist with the evaluation of inmates suffering from mental health issues.

“This will benefit the guards, the inmates, the other inmates,” King said. “To have a qualified team present to address the mental health issue we encounter every day.”

Pecan Valley MHMR Executive Director Coke Beatty told commissioners that the need is great and resources are limited.

“About 60 percent of those in jails suffer some form of mental illness or drug problems,” Beatty said. “Programs like these are an effort to help keep those people safe and from committing suicide.”

State hospital beds for those suffering mental illnesses total only 2,500 beds for the entire state, Beatty said. 

“Through this we’ll be able to get people having these issues identified and the help they need,” King said. “We’ll also be able to give more information to prosecutors so they’ll know better the best way to deal with these individuals.”

Johnson County Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace Judge Ronny McBroom said he’s delighted by the commissioner’s approval of the request.

“Several years ago I made an agreement with MHMR to have trainees down there about three nights a week to do screenings at the jail,” McBroom said. “That went fine for a while but then they got short handed and had to pull them out so I’m elated that we’re going to have trained professionals back there because they’re the ones qualified to make those evaluations and determinations.”

The move also comes in light of the so called Sandra Bland Act, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law last summer.

The act, passed during the last legislative session, is named after Bland, a 28-year-old woman found dead in 2015 in a Waller County Jail several days after being arrested on misdemeanor charges stemming from a traffic stop.

The law requires jail staff to divert people with mental health or substance abuse issues toward treatment.

The time in which a magistrate must be notified of a person suffering or suspected of suffering mental health issues has also been decreased from 72 to 12 hours.

“That’s a good idea overall,” King said. “But it can also be a challenge. For example, if someone is booked into jail on DWI or drug charges they may well be acting out of the ordinary. So, in some cases, it can be hard to tell if they’re acting that way because of drugs, mental health issues or some mixture of both.”

Incoming inmates are also now required to fill out a form answering a series of questions such as whether they suffer from depression or harbor suicidal thoughts.

“Us JPs get a copy of that form along with the magistration paperwork we receive on each inmate,” McBroom said. “And, if they check yes on any of those questions, we can look into their situation more. But we’re also notified by the jail when anyone has or may have mental health issues at which point we can notify the local mental health authority, which is MHMR here, to collect information and provide an assessment. We then provide copies of the written assessment to the defense counsel, trial court and prosecutors so the trial court may sue the assessment for its purposes.

“This is important because Texas Judicial Council statistics show that an estimated 20 percent to 24 percent of the Texas inmate population has a mental health need. The goal of all this is to get the people in those situations where they need to be and the help they need.”

The demand for mental health services outstrips the supply, King and McBroom said.

According to 2015 data, there are 2,416 beds available in state mental hospitals, facilities that in many cases are outdated and deteriorating. Wait lists for beds have more than quadrupled since 2013, according to the same data.

“So basically jails are holding a lot of these people now because there simply aren’t enough beds available in the state hospitals,” McBroom said. “And these are in many cases people who don’t belong in jail where they’re not getting the treatment they need. Where they’re a danger to themselves, the jail staff and even other inmates.”

Others, McBroom said, including Johnson County District Attorney Dale Hanna, County Attorney Bill Moore and 413th District Judge Bill Bosworth are working to craft solutions such as reducing bond amounts for arrested individuals determined to be mentally challenged in effort to best address the issues of mental health concerns pose for the justice system.

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