Galveston County Commissioners’ vote this week to create a mental health court is an encouraging step and should be commended.
The next step is to understand what such a court would cost, commissioners said. But the better question might be what it costs not to create such a court.
This isn’t just about compassion and humane treatment of people struggling with mental illness, although those are good enough reasons to take action. It’s also about the burden on law enforcement and taxpayers.
“We run the largest mental health facility in the county; it’s called the county jail,” County Judge Mark Henry, who is spearheading the initiative, said. “We need to get the people that truly have mental health issues out of the criminal justice system.”
Mental health courts are diversion programs through which a person charged with a nonviolent, low-level crime is given the opportunity to receive counseling and other services instead of going to jail. The program is voluntary.
If a person qualifies for the program and declines, or fails to meet the terms for participating, the person is sent through the normal judicial process.
This week, county commissioners appointed a magistrate judge to oversee such a court. Commissioners unanimously appointed Judge Wayne Mallia to preside. Among Mallia’s first tasks will be developing a plan for creating the court and an estimate about how much it will cost.
Commissioners and Mallia haven’t yet negotiated his pay.
And commissioners in their vote Monday didn’t commit any money to the court. County commissioners have talked for years about creating a mental health specialty court that would divert people suffering from mental illness into programs and therapy, instead of a jail cell. But lack of money and leadership have stymied the efforts. It’s obvious there’s leadership and political will. Money, well, that’s always an issue.
Commissioners and taxpayers should carefully consider the cost of the existing system.
Taxpayers spend about $81 a day on each inmate, according to 2013 estimates from the county’s budget office.
It’s a national issue.
“Jailing people with mental illness creates huge burdens on law enforcement, corrections and state and local budgets,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “It does not protect public safety. And people who could be helped are being ignored.”
During a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than get medical help, according to the alliance.
Because of that, more than 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year, according to the alliance. And nearly 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition according, to the alliance.
“Once in jail, many individuals don’t receive the treatment they need and end up getting worse, not better,” according to the alliance. “They stay longer than their counterparts without mental illness. They are at risk of victimization and often their mental health conditions get worse.”
Helping people get out of jail and into treatment is a top priority for the alliance and should be for the county.
But the costs of the existing system don’t stop at the jail.
After leaving jail, many people suffering from mental illness no longer have access to needed health care and benefits, according to the alliance.
“A criminal record often makes it hard for individuals to get a job or housing,” according to the alliance. “Many individuals, especially without access to mental health services and supports, wind up homeless, in emergency rooms and often re-arrested. At least 83 percent of jail inmates with a mental illness did not have access to needed treatment.”
The county should aggressively pursue the mental health court and find funding. It’s the right thing to do, and it can’t afford not to.
• Laura Elder