Harris County to expand program for offenders with mental health illness

May 1, 2019

Harris County officials on Wednesday announced the expansion of a program that aims to give low-level offenders with mental health illnesses psychiatric help in lieu of jail time.

More than 1,000 people have been sent to the Judge Ed Emmett Mental Health Diversion Center in Midtown since September, resulting in an estimated $9 million in cost savings, District Attorney Kim Ogg said. She anticipated the number of clients could double or triple over a similar time period with the expansion of the program, which previously focused mostly on trespassing offenses.

“It not only saves lots of money at the jail and courts, but we get people appropriate treatment,” she said.

The center’s expansion means that the program will now include eligibility for an array of non-violent, low-level misdemeanors, such as failure to identify to a police officer.

The Ed Emmett building, which began taking clients on Sept. 4, is a pre-booking alternative to jail for low-level, non-violent offenders with mental health illnesses. If a police officer finds an offender who clearly displays signs of mental health illness, they can be sent to the center and avoid a criminal charge altogether — part of a larger effort to close a revolving door of people repeatedly booked in jail for the same crimes.