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On county jails and treating mental illness

There’s really only one thing that needs to be said about this op-ed, which was co-written by Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and HPD Chief Charles McClelland.

Texas ranks 49th in the nation in per capita spending on mental health services. Only 25 percent of children and 18 percent of adults with severe mental illness and in need of services from the public mental health system in Harris County are able to receive them. Now, Texas lawmakers are looking to cut funding to the already overburdened public mental health system by $134 million for 2012-13.

As the heads of the two largest law enforcement agencies in the Houston area, we are extremely concerned that spending significantly less on mental health services for those most in need will result in far greater ramifications in the long term for state finances as well as the quality of life for all Texans. Funding cuts will directly affect public safety if officers are forced to deal with even more mental health crises rather than address other urgent calls for service. Moreover, many individuals with untreated mental illness who lack access to care end up cycling through the criminal justice system at a cost that is significantly higher to taxpayers than that of providing ongoing, community-based treatment and services.

A prime example of cost shifting has occurred within the Harris County Jail, now the largest mental health facility in Texas. The Harris County Jail treats more individuals with mental health issues on a daily basis than our state’s 10 psychiatric hospitals combined. This is especially worrisome given that the United States Department of Justice reports that it costs 60 percent more to incarcerate inmates with serious mental illnesses than it costs to house typical inmates.


Continuing to increase our reliance on emergency responders to deal with the chronic mentally ill strains our already limited resources.

It also continues to criminalize mental illness, something that benefits no one and negatively affects all of us, whether we are the individuals living with a mental illness, their loved ones, or the taxpayers footing the increasing bill to provide expensive and repeated crisis treatment in our local emergency rooms, jails and state prisons.

The significant cuts the Legislature made in 2003 to this same system are very much part of why we find ourselves in such a precarious situation. We hope our legislators keep this in mind as they decide how to address this important public safety issue in the coming months. Spending less in the short run will only lead to higher costs later, not only in money but also in peace of mind.

The only thing that’s lacking in this piece is the co-signature of County Judge Ed Emmett. The truth of the matter is that the Republican Lege and our Governor don’t care what a Democratic Sheriff and a city police chief think. They’re going to make whatever cuts to the budget they see fit to make, and if it has negative effects on someone else, that’s not their problem. There’s at least a chance that they might give a little bit of weight to what a Republican County Judge has to say, however. I don’t expect much – they’re still going to screw us, they just might feel a teensy twinge of regret about it – but it’s all we’ve got.

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