Sunday, June 04, 2006

Good idea: New Austin public defender office will represent mentally ill

In November, Travis County (Austin) will open the first public defender office in the country specifically aimed at guiding people with mental health problems through the criminal justice system. The Austin Statesman's Claire Osborn reported ("New office will give free legal help to the mentally ill," May 27) that:
The county received a $500,000, four-year grant ... to establish the Mental Health Public Defender Office. The grant, which becomes available Oct. 1, came from the state Task Force on Indigent Defense, a group created by the Legislature.

The office will include a chief public defender, a staff attorney, two social workers, two case workers and two administrators. The office will handle about 10 Class A and Class B misdemeanor cases per week, or about 500 per year, said Kimberly Pierce, the manager for criminal justice planning in Travis County. Typical misdemeanor cases include drunken driving, assault and shoplifting charges, she said.
Joe Crews of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit group that advocates for indidgent defendants' right to counsel, wrote an op-ed in the Statesman following up on the announcement, calling it "a bold and pioneering step and one that needs to be replicated across Texas, where jails house more than five times as many people with mental illness as do our psychiatric hospitals."

Well sure, because as I've
written before the mental hospitals are completely full. That's part of what's happening here. Travis County hopes to use specialized public defenders to manage an unfunded mandate from the state - when the mental hospitals are full, counties have to handle indigent defendants with mental illness on their own resources and initiative. Travis County is just stepping up to the plate. They've chosen to make sure specialized attorneys advocate for the legal rights of indigent, mentally ill defendants. I think that's a smart approach, for a lot of reasons.

In addition to representing individual defendants, Crews hopes the new PD's office will become an "institutional voice for defendants with mental illness — bringing together state and local stakeholders to find and develop long-term, cost-effective, community-based options to jailing persons with mental illness." That'd be a bonus. I'd be happy if these folks just got good lawyers and access to existing mental health services.

As I've mentioned previously, in San Antonio they're trying a different approach, a drop off center where officers can take mentally ill defendants who might be causing trouble but who need medication and treatment more than jail. Reported the SA Express News ("Crisis care center aids cops, detainees," 12-9-05):
An estimated 15 percent of inmates in the Bexar County Jail have a persistent mental illness, said Sheriff Ralph Lopez.

"A jail is not a place for a person suffering from a mental health episode," he said. "This should speed up the process of getting people help and keeping them from going to jail unnecessarily."

The new center should save city and county officials money, too, Evans said. The San Antonio Police Department had been spending about $600,000 annually on overtime and additional shifts for officers forced to wait in crowded emergency rooms with people needing treatment.

I hope both these programs are implemented in ways that generate metrics for measuring success - like the number of people diverted from jail, number of criminal commitments processed or averted, etc.. My sense is both these programs will save counties a lot of money in the near term, so documenting how much would make it easier for other counties to justify following suit.

Kudos to the Travis and Bexar Commissioners Courts on these innovative approaches, and to the Task Force on Indigent Defense for financing Travis County's new innovation.

(Thanks to Tricia and the
Stand Down blog for pointing out the Travis PD story.)

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