Texas correctional system a "dumping ground" for the mentally ill
The correctional system is where "the failures of all society's other institutions wind up at the end of the day"
By Lomi Kriel
San Antonio Express-News
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Having reached a critical mass in its prison and jail populations, Texas needs to work harder to divert substance abusers and mentally ill inmates from the system, better equip the wave of those who are released each year and implement alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, a group of policymakers and criminal justice experts said Thursday.
Although the state's prison and jail systems have long complained of overcrowding, the situation has become dire, as there are not enough prisons or jails to house those who are arrested every day. And even if there were, experts said, the systems are woefully understaffed for the volume.
At the first statewide symposium of its kind, organized by Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, panelists Thursday cited alarming statistics as they discussed the reasons the state's prison population remains so large -- the second-biggest in the nation -- and ways to reduce it while ensuring offenders are adequately punished.
Jails throughout the state are struggling.
Bexar County Jail, for instance, was declared in violation of state standards last year because of overcrowding, and today it remains at nearly 96 percent capacity. Out of its 4,219 inmates, 98 are currently being held in the Frio County Jail because there isn't enough space here.
Part of the problem, some panelists said, is that the state's correctional system becomes a dumping ground for the mentally ill and those with chronic substance abuse problems.
Nearly one-third of the state's prison population have also been in the state mental health system, said Scott Henson, author of the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast.
The correctional system is where "the failures of all society's other institutions wind up at the end of the day," he said, incurring a tremendous cost for counties and the state.
In Bexar County, about 25 percent of the jail's population is mentally ill, said Leon Evans, president of the San Antonio-based Center for Health Care Services, a non-profit partnership with University Hospital that tries to divert mentally ill people before they get arrested. The program has been showcased as a model for other counties and states. Evans estimated the group screens about 500 mentally ill people a month who would otherwise have ended up in jail or in emergency rooms because police officers don't know where to take them.
"There's a growing realization that we have a system of incarceration that mainly deals with the mentally ill or with drug offenders," said Tony Fabelo, the symposium's keynote speaker and director of research for the Council of State Government's Justice Center.
Fabelo said incarceration is such a common experience for some people that it's not regarded as a deterrent to committing crime. In Texas, he said, the growth of the prison population has outpaced that of the state: Between 1980 and 2005, the state jail population jumped 61 percent and the prison population by 310 percent. Meanwhile, the state's overall population grew 61.3 percent.
Nearly two-thirds of felons are re-arrested within three years of their release, said John Byrd, a criminal justice professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. In Bexar County Jail, Adkisson said, about 81 percent of the inmates have been there before.
Policymakers and elected leaders must make it easier, under certain circumstances, for offenders to post bail, the panelists said, and use better pre-trial services to reduce the number of those awaiting trial.
One such option, House Bill 2391, passed the state Legislature last year and allows law enforcement officials to issue citations for certain nonviolent misdemeanors, such as driving with an invalid license. Those charged would still face the same punishment but would not have to wait in jail until posting bail.
Only three counties have elected to implement that provision. Bexar County has not.
Copyright 2008 San Antonio Express-News