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.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.
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.
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.