Local Judge Discusses Lack of Mental Health Resources in Tom Green County
Previously, San Angelo LIVE! reported on the high cost to Tom Green County taxpayers for people who sit in jail waiting for a conviction. Many of the men and women in the Tom Green County Jail cannot afford the bonds set, so their chances of re-offending increase.
As of 2013, the TGCJ witnessed about 381 people on average through its cells, and 70 percent of the pre-trial population sat in jail because of poverty (read more here).
We also explained how, because of the cost to taxpayers and the negative effects sitting in jail has on low-risk offenders, members of the Texas Judicial Council formed a Criminal Justice Committee last summer to review pre-trial practices in the state to determine appropriate changes (read that article here).
In addition to these problems, Tom Green County Judge Ben Woodward wanted to address another major issue facing inmates, judges and taxpayers: the lack of mental health treatment and resources.
According to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas ranks 50th nationally out of 52 jurisdictions in State Mental Health Agency per-capita expenditures. Additionally, the Texas’ Department of State Health Services notes that only 31 percent of Texas adults with severe and persistent mental illness have received services through DSHS. The agency also states that Texas’ mental health hospital system is outdated, facilities are not located in areas of greatest need and there are gaps in crisis services and prevention.
“Mental health treatment providers are scarce in many Texas correctional facilities (including private and state-operated prisons, state jails, transfer facilities, and others),” stated TCJC. “As of August 31, 2013, over 40 of the 112 facilities listed in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s directory had no mental health employees on site, despite some units having a maximum capacity of nearly 1,400 inmates.”
Because of these issues, many groups, including the Criminal Justice Committee, are seeking reform through the Texas Legislature.
The Problem in Tom Green County
Last month, Judge Ben Woodward dealt with an extreme mental health case where a San Angelo man in jail stayed at a mental health facility in Big Spring since 2010. It took six years and a lot of frustration to resolve this man’s case. Last month, he was finally competent enough to stand trial. Woodward said the man is schizophrenic, but he finally had his medication balanced out in a way that helped. In addition to being schizophrenic, the man is part of the poverty population and has no resources outside of jail to keep him going on the right path. He had no place to go once released.
"If he has no place to go, we're worried he'll stop taking his medication," Woodward explained.
With the cooperation of the Tom Green County Sheriff's office, MHMR set him up with services, but Woodward ordered, as a condition of probation, for the man to sit in jail for two days. The man thanked him.
Woodward said many of the inmates in TGCJ with mental health issues fall through the cracks of the justice system because of a lack of manpower and money.
If Tom Green County had the resources like Lubbock, these inmates could get the services they need, and the burden on taxpayers would lessen.
"Lubbock’s experience is 40 percent of their jail population dropped when they were able to get [their inmates] mental health services," Woodward said.
Lubbock not only has the money for resources, but it also has an extra administrator. David Slayton, now Executive Director of the Office of Court Administration, used to hold that position.
“So when he sets his mind to do something, he has the knowledge, background and education to pull things together,” explained Woodward.
This is exactly what Tom Green County needs. With money, the County could hire someone with the appropriate training to “evaluate people, set up an effective structure and get things rolling,” said Woodward.
“Then we have to have cooperation with MHMR,” he noted. “We might be sending them a lot more people then they can handle."
Judges would also need access to more information. Woodward said judges don’t know when people have a pending mental health problem or caseload because of privacy laws.
Woodward added that people getting thrown in jail and sitting there isn’t the only frustration.
“The other area that we're having frustrations with in mental health is, a person cannot be brought to trial unless they're competent,” he said. “That means they understand the charges; they can communicate with their attorney; they can recall facts about the circumstances; they can make rational decisions."
If inmates are not competent, the judges send them to Big Spring and commit them so professionals there can try to restore their competence. However, Big Spring is “understaffed and undermanned,” added Woodward. He said it takes time to get people in, and the staff will sometimes send people back saying they're competent.
"We're not convinced they are," Woodward noted. "They just got to move their patients."
Judge Woodward said these people end up back in jail, and their lawyers say they can't proceed because of competence, so the inmates remain in a limbo because the judges don’t know what to do with them.
Woodward also said, in many cases, inmates don't become competent so the judges will commit them to a long-term facility.
"They have to stay at a long-term mental health facility until they actually do become competent," he said.
Or, they've been there the equivalent of a prison sentence and can't go beyond that. Woodward said it's hard getting them into such a facility.
"We've had people stay in Tom Green County for months waiting for a bed at a mental health facility," he stated.
Depending on the crime, these inmates go to specific places. For violent crimes, the inmates go to Vernon and Kerrville. If they’re not violent offenders, they go to Big Spring.
Judge Woodward said another issue has to do with drug testing for cases that correlate with mental illness. Currently, DPS runs the chemical labs that do all the scientific testing, but those labs get backed up.
"They've been addressing those through the DPS procedures, and have realigned somewhat where they send some of their evidence to be tested," Woodward said. “They're trying to balance out the caseload and trying to address that in house, but they need more chemists and labs.”
Woodward said these problems have to be addressed by the Texas Legislature. Until this major problem is addressed, and counties like Tom Green are provided with the proper resources, many inmates will continue to sit in TGCJ when they should be getting mental health treatment. Also, taxpayers will continue to fit the bill.