People with mental health disorders charged with misdemeanor offenses in Galveston County soon will get help from a new office meant to keep them out of jail.
The county last week received a grant to create a mental health public defenders program. The $735,334 grant came from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission.
Commissioners accepted the grant Monday in a unanimous vote. In the same vote, they committed matching the grant with $298,208 in county money.
The grant provides partial funding for the office for three years, with the county’s commitment increasing each year, said Wayne Mallia, the former district court judge who is now helping to oversee the creation of mental health programs in the county.
Mallia called the approval of the new office a “very good thing.”
The county will now begin the process of hiring defense attorneys, investigators and social workers to make up the seven-person office. The office likely won’t begin operating until 2021, Mallia said.
The first steps in creating the office will be forming an oversight committee and hiring a director, he said.
The program is similar to, but separate from, a mental health court the county created earlier this year. The mental health court is meant to divert people charged with felony crimes away from the jail and into treatment programs and services.
The public defenders office has a similar goal but will focus on people charged with less-serious crimes.
The program also represents a change in how people who cannot afford lawyers are represented in the county. There’s no public defenders office for people who cannot afford attorneys. Instead, district court judges assign private-practice attorneys to represent indigent arrestees.
About 20 percent of people booked into the Galveston County Jail are identified as potentially mentally ill, according to the application the county submitted to the indigent defense commission.
Many of those arrests are for misdemeanor offenses.
In one six-month period in 2019, the county screened 737 arrestees for mental health issues, according to the application. Of the people evaluated, 333 were charged with misdemeanor crimes and 190 ultimately were judged to have a severe mental health issue.
The new program will allow the county to have people versed in mental health issues represent those arrestees, increasing the chance they will receive a personal recognizance bond, which allows them to leave jail without posting bond, as well as connecting them with mental health treatment, according to the application.
People who are released on bond are more likely to have their charges dismissed, which also saves the county money on housing people in the jail, according to the application.
Creation of the office is part of a series of reforms the county has undertaken — both on its own and under the requirements of a civil rights lawsuit — since 2017, which includes the creation of the felony mental health court and changes made to the county’s bond and magistrate system.
Mallia credited the creation of the office and other reforms to the support of County Judge Mark Henry, County Commissioner Stephen Holmes and county court-at-law judges, who typically oversee misdemeanor cases.
“What makes it successful is that our county leadership got involved with it and got on board and got pretty much on the same page,” Mallia said