AP NEWS

Mental health diversion program to expand in Houston area

May 1, 2019

HOUSTON (AP) — Houston-area law enforcement officials on Wednesday announced the expansion of a program to keep low-level misdemeanor offenders with mental health problems out of jail following the success of new facility that resulted in diverting more than 1,000 people from incarceration and saving taxpayers $9 million.

Officials will increase the types of low-level, non-violent misdemeanor offenses that can be referred to a mental health diversion center that opened in September, said Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg.

Officers had mostly been diverting trespassing cases from the county jail to the center. But most other low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors will now be considered. Offenses like driving while intoxicated, domestic violence, assault and others where public safety could be compromised will be excluded.

“When individuals are brought here by police, it not only saves lots of money at the jail, in the courts, but we get people appropriate treatment,” Ogg said.

Instead of going to the Harris County Jail — which is often described as the largest mental health facility in Texas because of the large number of mentally ill inmates it treats — misdemeanor offenders are brought to the diversion center. At the facility, they get examined by nurses and other health care professionals and get psychiatric and other mental health support and help with housing and other needs.

The average stay for an individual at the diversion center is 65 hours and the facility has the capacity to serve up to 41 people at one time.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the program’s expansion is not an effort to be “soft on crime.”

“This is about compassion. This is about being smart and this is about hopefully changing lives,” Acevedo said. “At the end of the day, citizens who call 911 don’t want people to go to jail. They want the behavior to stop. And you can’t stop low level misdemeanors by taking them to jail, going in one door and going out the other.”

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said the incarceration of mentally ill individuals is a problem not just in the Houston area but across the country.

About 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year across the U.S., according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The organization is part of a national initiative that includes law enforcement groups and others that are working to reduce the number of people in jail who have mental illnesses.

“This community is doing something about it and this works ... It makes sense financially. We get better outcomes. It’s better for the community. It’s a win-win,” Gonzalez said.

___

Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70