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Harris County mental health court and diversion programs

The Felony Mental Health Court has been around for a few years. Since 2012, this problem-solving court has been diverting those suffering from mental illness away from prison and facilitating access to treatment and other community resources.

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In October 2018, the Harris County Mental Health Jail Diversion Program expanded as an alternative to Harris County Jail. This program is available for low-level, non-violent offenses. The collaboration between various agencies addresses how mental illness often lands people in the criminal justice system.

This pre-arrest approach is unique and not as common as other types of diversion, such as drug court and veterans court. We discussed in some depth when veterans' court is an option in our August 2017 blog post.

How the diversion program can put in place needed services

Erratic behavior or self-treatment with alcohol and/or drug cocktails can easily land someone in jail. A statistic illustrates the scale: approximately 3,000 people in the Harris County jail receive psychiatric care.

The new Mental Health Diversion Center offers a range of services from:

  • Triage and assessment
  • Individual treatment plans that lead to stabilization
  • Case management after discharge
  • Wrap-around service access to address housing or substance abuse treatment

After an arrest for trespass, someone suspected of suffering from mental illness might be diverted to the center for treatment instead of jail. In September, during a soft launch of the program, 150 people received treatment rather than jail. The typical stay was about two weeks and included connecting a patient to ongoing support and available services.

Texas legislation signed into law

The case of young woman who died in custody following a lengthy argument with a Department of Safety Trooper also prompted a new mental health-related law. Governor Greg Abbott signed the Sandra Bland Act and it went into effect on September 1, 2018.

County jails must divert people with mental health-related substance abuse issues toward treatment. In effect, this should make it easier for people who have a mental illness or intellectual disability to get out on personal bond. Another requirement is that jail deaths must be investigated by independent law enforcement agencies.

The good news is that if a loved one who suffers from mental illness has a run in with law enforcement there are more options available. It is crucial, however to seek immediate experienced legal counsel from a defense attorney who knows the system and can limit the collateral consequences.

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