Mental Illness in Jails: Part 4

An ever growing percentage of those behind bars in Texas are inmates with a mental illness. Criminal Justice officials say they're better equipped to address some of these challenges than in the past, but the problem remains quite real and continues to be an increasing burden on the taxpayer supported state budget. In the final part of this four part series, Houston Public Radio's Paul Pendergraft reports funding for mental health facilities is threatened like never before.

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State Representative Garnet Coleman has been on the front lines of this fight in the Texas Legislature for many years. In the last decade, he's seen the increasing pressures on local jails and state prisons as they deal with inmates with mental illnesses.

"That was one of the reasons I passed a bill to create Mental Health Courts that divert people who have committed a crime because of their mental illness from being put into the criminal justice system. But quite frankly, there's no service to divert them into because the service has been cut. So, there is no other place for a person to go to other than the criminal justice system if they continue to commit offenses if they're severely ill. So the system is completely broken."

Coleman says the cuts made to mental health services, including the ones he just described occurred in 2003. He calls them the largest cuts to health care in the history of the state.....and he says Texas now ranks between 47th and 49th in per capita spending on mental health. Betsy Schwartz is the Executive Director of the Mental Health Association of Greater Houston and she says the cuts have affected basic housing which complicates everything when it comes to citizens with mental illnesses.

"For the people that are homeless right now, that are being provided services from MHMRA, Mental Health Mental Retardation Authority...someone is literally being given their medication and then discharged to live under the bridge. Well, who among us would be taking their medication correctly and not losing it if our home were under the bridge or next to a building downtown."

Representative Garnet Coleman says the fight for mental health funding in Austin is ongoing and he'll once again, make the case, in the next legislative session.

"I filed a bill last session to resend all of the cuts in 2003 and restore policy to service levels, pre-2003, and I will file that bill again this session. Quite frankly, the leadership in Austin right now won't change unless voters tell them that they want something different. But we need more people to have their voices heard that they care about the individuals who have mental illness and don't believe they should go to jail to get treatment. They should be able to get care and help through the MHMRA here in Harris County."

When the Texas Legislature convenes in the coming days, those fighting for health care and specifically mental health dollars will most certainly have a tough fight on their hands. Representative Coleman says in the statehouse, the fiscal and emotional arguments for these programs don't seem to work....he says it's politics that get in the way of increasing funding for programs that truly do make a difference in the lives of our citizens most at risk.

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Paul Pendergraft

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Paul Pendergraft is KUHF-Houston Public Radio’s Senior Producer for News & Public Affairs...