Thursday, January 04, 2007

Travis County MH Public Defender opens

This week, Travis County's new public defender office aimed at indigent, mentally-ill misdemeanor defendants opened to editorial praise from the Austin and Houston papers, plus coverage from the SA Express News ("Mentally ill in Travis getting public defender," 1-1), which reported:
A snapshot of pretrial detention data of 2,410 inmates compiled by the Sheriff's Office show inmates with mental illness spend more than twice as much time incarcerated as other inmates.

Mentally ill males accused of misdemeanors spent 51 days in jail awaiting trial, compared with 23 for males in the general population. Females with mental illness who were charged with less serious crimes spent 32 days behind bars before trial, while other females were released within 13.

"We keep spending more and more money on the criminal justice system and less on the mental health system," said Beth Mitchell, an attorney at Advocacy Inc., which aims to protect the legal rights of the disabled.

State lawmakers rationed public mental health services in 2003 to individuals with major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, but services still only reach 28 percent of the seriously mentally ill who need them, Mitchell said, citing statistics of the Department of State Health Services.

"The only way to get the person mental health services is to criminalize them," she said. "We have a population that is being criminalized that doesn't need to be criminalized but needs to get treatment."

Once it is fully operational, the specialized public defender office will house two full-time lawyers who will handle 500 misdemeanor cases per year, along with two social workers and two caseworkers.

To me, those figures about mentally ill defendants waiting twice as long in jail pretrial on misdemeanor charges amounts to a stunning indictement of the system. The new office stilll can't address the competency restoration issue I raised last week - a new PD can move cases through the system faster so long as the client is not deemed incompetent by the court. If that happens, because of a lack of state funding, defendants may wait in jail many months to receive "competency restoration" services before a case can proceed.

But for every defendant requiring competency restoration there are many more who just need a good lawyer and access to presently underfunded mental health services.

I'd mentioned last year Travis had received the grant. The new office was supposed to open in November but experienced minor delays. Word has it not everybody in the local defense bar likes the idea, mainly for taking bread off the table, as near as I can tell, but I think it's a good plan.

I do wonder how these folks will be assigned - in some cases it may be obvious, but not with everyone. Who in the pretrial screening system is competent to determine whether someone is mentally ill? I suppose one way would be to match defendants to Texas State Health Services mental health client list. They must have some way to track those cases to be able to come up with the 500/year caseload estimate for the new office.

In any event, kudos to Travis County and the Texas Task Force on Indigent defense for launching the program. Let's hope it helps.

3 comments:

Andrea said...

Travis Co will be relying on the MH screening system already in place in the jail to identify defendants eligible for representation by the MHPD. Someone else can correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe the screening system involves an interview tool and thus goes beyond determining whether the arrestee previously has received services from MHMR. My sense is that people think the screening system is pretty good at identifying a lot of the arrestees with mental illness, though certainly some may not be identified until later when a defense attorney is assigned and has more contact with the arrestee. In cases identified after initial appointment, the MHPD could be appointed to sit second chair or otherwise provide support to the originally appointed attorney. My understanding is that the jail screening system is not as effective at identifying arrestees with mental retardation and that defendants in this category will not be assigned to the MHPD, at least in the short term.

elvez1975 said...

Kudos to the folks at the MHPD and to people like Judge Hohengarten who helped make this a reality.

As far as screening issues are concerned, I seriously believe that Travis County needs to rethink how it approaches screening all criminal defendants. Other jurisdictions seem perfectly capable of catching MH issues and indigency issues at the initial contact/arrest, but this county hasn't developed a way to settle the indigency issue at the outset. Screen for people at the beginning and this will get people who need lawyers and who are not in jail assigned much, much quicker. (Although I am not as concerned about the backlog of cases in TC, early indigency screening would serve to eliminate old cases quicker too.)

As far as people grousing that a PD will take bread off the table, I think it's pretty self-explanatory that even the average defense attorney is going to struggle to address some of the issues involved in representation and getting clients the right social services (to say nothing about some of the way below average attorneys). My position is that this opposition comes not from concerns about MH/MR clients getting the right services/representation but rather about the dilution of the pool of appointment eligible clients.

Hastonorwood said...

Only a fool would not support the Travis County Mental Health PD. No attorney on the county appointment system appreciates being paid less than their normal rate. Typically, a mentally ill client requires a lot more work to serve his/her needs. And typically, counties are not going to pay any more for that service, in effect, an even smaller fee for a professional service. Travis County deserves lots of respect for its effort and I'm certain its attorneys will appreciate the help the TCMHPD will provide.