We Need a Mental Health Diversion Center in Austin

No matter what color the jail walls are painted, jail is jail, not a therapeutic setting.

Our community members with mental health problems that need treatment are currently tossed into the Travis County Jail when their mental health problems lead to contact with law enforcement for low-level non-violent offenses.

Doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result, is the definition of insanity. Why do we keep building jails to solve social problems that are never solved?*


Houston Should Never Be More Progressive Than Austin, But:


Since September 1, 2018, Harris County has used a mental health diversion system in Houston. You can read about it here: https://www.theharriscenter.org/Services/Our-Services/Harris-County-Mental-Health-Jail-Diversion-Program Approximately 1100 Harris county folks who would have normally been arrested for low level, non-violent, experiencing a mental health problem, have been diverted to mental health services rather than being booked into jail and charged with a crime. Harris County’s system is working.


Meanwhile, in Austin, Travis County, the community has begged the City of Austin to stop arresting those experiencing homelessness, who frequently have a mental health component, for camping and violating the no-sit-no-lie ordinance. http://grassrootsleadership.org/reports/homes-not-handcuffs-how-austin-criminalizes-homelessness


Travis county commissioners plan to spend $97 million on a new jail facility, knowing that many of those that would be populating those jail cells would be women with mental health issues. https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2018-09-07/a-new-jail-for-travis-county/


Let’s divert some of those millions of dollars to do right by people who need help not handcuffs. (I’m stealing this phrase from Grassroots Leadership, who have championed Homes, Not Handcuffs.)


Judges Needles & Herman Are Trying to Affect Positive Change:


Travis County Probate Judge Guy Herman and District Court Judge Tamara Needles are on it. Last year, these two judges visited the Harris County facility and were inspired. Now, they are trying to figure out the details to create this type of mental health diversion facility in Travis County.

Judge Needles immediately became the chair of the Behavioral Health Advisory Committee (“BHAC”) when she took the bench in the 427th Judicial District Court. http://www.needlesforjudge.com/ When she was in private practice, Judge Needles helped some clients with mental health issues. She is now spear-heading the effort to divert people with a mental health component away from the criminal justice system and into services.


This BHAC committee is tasked with addressing the interception between mental health needs and county programs. https://www.integralcare.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/2015-Updated-SIM-Report-Final.pdf


BHAC has run the numbers, concluding that the Harris County mental health diversion program would be a good fit for Austin, Travis County.


Monday, June 3, 2019, stakeholders met at a BHAC meeting to discuss this possibility. The stakeholders include Integral Care, Central Health, Austin Police Department, Travis County Sheriff’s Department, Travis County Attorney, Travis County District Attorney, Seton Hospital, and, of course, Travis County itself – including County Judge Eckhardt.


During the June 3rd meeting, a Harris County prosecutor Denise Onken, and the gentleman that runs the mental health diversion program Tom Mitchell, explained to the Travis County stakeholders how the Harris County program works and why it works.


In Harris County, there is an average police officer drop off time of 11 minutes. This means that starting with the officer’s contact with the person with a mental health issue and ending at the time the officer drops off the person at the mental health diversion center, the officer spends 11 minutes. That officer is then freed to answer other emergency calls instead of stuck at the jail filling out paperwork.


This is significantly less time than it would take an officer to book a person into jail.


The average stay for a person that was diverted to the mental health diversion center in Harris County is 14 days, though some have stayed up to 28 days. While they are there, they are connected to social workers, programs, and medical treatment (setting broken limbs, is but one example). They typically have between 28/35 beds occupied at the Harris County facility. It would likely be less, given Austin/Travis’s relative size, should the program be implemented here in Austin.


You Don’t Even Have to Build It – Health South Rehabilitation Hospital Is Vacant:


There is actually a perfect building available in downtown Austin for just such a facility – the old Health South Rehabilitation Hospital. It is currently vacant. It is huge. And, it would be great for both a mental health diversion center and to help alleviate some of Austin’s bed-shortage for those experiencing homelessness (separately from the mental health diversion center). It just so happens to be across the street from the new Sobering Center, which diverts public intoxication arrestees from jail to someplace they can sober-up and avoid a criminal charge and being booked into jail. You can read about the Sobering Center here: https://soberingcenter.org/ 


Jail Doesn’t Solve Problems – Let’s Use Our Brains & Try Diversion Programs:

This is the era of diversion in our part of Texas. We are diverting people away from the county courts for offenses like driving while license invalid. https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2018-09-21/how-to-jail-the-poor/


We are diverting people away from jail with cite-and-release programs for offenses like possession of misdemeanor amounts of marijuana. https://www.austinchronicle.com/daily/news/2009-02-24/746307/


Existing Policies & Programs Need to Be Beefed Up:

There are existing programs in place that defer clients to mental health support in lieu of jail. There is a Gevene Jail Diversion program with a mental health facility for clients in need of shorter-term stabilization. Officers in Austin can take clients to the Guy Herman Center after they are placed on a psychiatric hold. These existing programs have limited beds. The need is greater than the current capacity.


Travis County also has an Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach (EMCOT) team that responds to mental health crises alongside first responders. This is dispatched at the police officer’s discretion. The purpose is to provide an appropriate response and follow up after an acute mental health crisis. The use of that program is limited by the police officers’ choice to use it. The City of Austin is unfortunately quite behind on its approach to mental health crisis response. In a September 2018 Office of the City Auditor, City of Austin, Audit Report, the City identified that Austin Police Officers are not following the best practices in dealing with mental health crises and APD is failing to measure its own successes/failures in dealing with mental health emergencies. The best approach to mental health crises is called the “Memphis Model,” but the Austin Police Department is not fully following the model. People experiencing a mental health crisis are more likely to have a negative encounter with police as a result. You can read the Auditor’s report here:  http://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Auditor/Audit_Reports/APD_Response_to_Mental_Health_Related_Incidents__September_2018.pdf


Show Travis County Your Support for a Mental Health Diversion Center:

Travis County’s claim to progressive politics is perhaps finally catching up to its public policy. After decades of attempting to criminalize-away social problems, perhaps we are all finally realizing that jail does not solve our problems. Prohibition did not solve alcoholism. The War on Drugs did not solve drug addiction. It is time for new approaches: A Sobering Center to divert the inebriated away from a criminal record, and a Mental Health Diversion Center to divert those who need our help not handcuffs.


In Houston, people experiencing a mental health issue get diverted away from jail and charges to connect them with services, while in Austin, they get booked into jail. Shame on us. Let’s do better.


Share this blog if you believe we CAN do better.


*They’re talking about building a new $97 million women’s jail facility. Why men and women have different “jail needs,” I’m not exactly sure. Any argument that they do may rise to the level of an Equal Protection violation. Jail does not, and cannot, satisfy any needs for either gender. You can read more about the fancy new place to lock women away from society here: https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2018-01-26/travis-county-plans-new-womens-jail/