Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Meth use may be boosting criminal commitments to psych hospitals

In Wichita Falls, the Times Record News reports, the failure of the state to fund psychiatric hospital space for criminal commitments is contributing to jail overcrowding ("Space may get tighter," Feb. 1):

Finding a space at state hospitals has always been hard, Sheriff Tom Callahan said.

"It just means they'll back up more into the county jail. That's probably not an appropriate place for them to be ... We're not designed to handle the mentally ill on a long-term basis."

The change could be costly, too.

"Lord help us from having to transport somebody from here to El Paso. That's a long ride," he said. "Obviously it's a funding problem and the Legislature has to correct it."

Grits for Breakfast actually broke this story a couple of weeks ago after an attorney left a comment about the plight of one of his clients. As a result of that post, Advocacy Inc. got involved with the issue. Then the Fort Worth Star Telegram followed up with a terrific story over the weekend.

In Wichita Falls, the Record-News reports, officials view meth abuse as a major driver for criminal commitments, which is an aspect of the problem I hadn't heard about before. The director of the local mental health center advocated:

focusing on ways law enforcement assess mental health needs and ensuring such inmates get processed and out of the hospital as quickly as possible. Meth use is also an option to tackle, Atkins said.

"A lot of our admissions that end up going to the state hospital have methamphetamine problems," he said.

If meth abuse is really what's driving criminal commitments, local officials will need to change their draconian, lock-em-up approach to focus more on prevention and drug treatment. Since their drug task force won't be getting Byrne grants anymore, maybe Wichita County officials should apply to use that money to pay for drug courts and drug treatment services, as other counties have done. Bottom line: The criminal justice system just isn't equpped to deal with serious substance abuse or mental health problems, not through incarceration alone.

For too long Texas has chosen to deal with difficult health problems like mental illness and substance abuse with police and prisons instead of doctors and clinics. Obviously now we've reached a crisis point.

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