Nacogdoches County looks to reduce population of prison inmates with mental illness

Nacogdoches County looks to reduce population of prison inmates with mental illness
Source: KTRE Staff
Source: KTRE Staff

NACOGDOCHES, TX (KTRE) - East Texas jails and many more across the state are housing inmates with mental illness, and in some places the primarily misdemeanor offenders make up half the jail population.

Nacogdoches County's Mental Health Court is a program that is working to reduce those numbers, but leaders said that a change within the jail system would be more effective.

"Our jails in many respects have become hospitals," said John Fleming, Nacogdoches County Attorney. "They get out. They get off their medications. They offend again then they're right back in our court."

As many that work on the staffing committee look over the list of defendants diagnosed with mental illness, the judge, attorneys, and mental health case workers often recognize the same repeated names. Now, Fleming is calling for change within the system.

"We need to look other models, in other states. Take the best part of those models and try to include them, integrate them, study them within the State of Texas," Fleming said. "I think that's what we need to be doing at this point.

The specialized Mental Health Court convenes one hour after staff meetings, and so far this year 15 offenders have been kept out of the Nacogdoches County Jail thanks to the time and care of the court. It is a combined effort between Burke case workers providing counseling, and probation officers standing as an accountability partners, but leaders say there is still too much room for error.

"Diversion courts can help, but it's going to take a system change in order to make a difference," Fleming said.

It's a problem the state's Health and Human Services has addressed for ten years, Fleming sent a letter to the committee chair and wrote that diversion courts cannot stand alone.

Fleming hopes to soon see a system where the courts and the state complement each other in a way that better serves the needs of mental health patients. Over the last two years the county's mental health court has had a positive impact, but advocates say results could be better.

Fleming suggests studying systems like California where they provide front end intervention which means after someone with a mental illness is arrested, the back end provides outpatient care as opposed to a jail sentence.

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