Tarrant County’s largest mental health center? The jail. Why that’s about to change

The Tarrant County Jail has an issue. It is the county’s largest provider of mental health care.

And with jails — and not just Tarrant County’s — becoming a revolving door for those with mental health needs, the cycle doesn’t seem to stop. For experts, it comes as no surprise as Texas ranks last among all states for access to mental health care.

“As far as urban counties, we’re behind,” county sheriff Bill Waybourn said about mental health care.

Because of the lack of mental health care access, jails have become mental health institutions, but that was never the goal, said Jaya Davis, a professor of criminal justice at UT Arlington.

“We see that the jails are the first stop,” Davis said. “And we see those individuals who have untreated or under-treated mental health illnesses and disorders cycling through our jail systems often.”

A study in 2015 found that people with mental health disorders make up 6.5% to 7.4% of the total jail population in Texas, making jails the largest mental health institutions in the state.

Six years later and not much has changed for Texas. But a few counties have tried to help those in need, and Tarrant County is next.

On May 11, county officials announced they want to open a mental health jail diversion center. Its goal will be to keep low-level offenders out of jail and help them get back on their feet.

County Judge Glen Whitley said he’d like the center to open by Oct. 1 but understands it could be unrealistic and he would be happy if it opens by the end of the year. Officials are looking for a space to lease.

Officials don’t know who would be in charge, but they do know that the county commissioners, MHMR of Tarrant County, the District Attorney’s Office, the Hospital District and law enforcement representatives will be part of the project. County Administrator G.K. Maenius said the center would cost the county roughly $7 million to $10 million to operate.

County officials will workshop the details soon. For them, the important thing is that the ball is rolling.

“I truly believe that it is a win-win,” Whitley said. “It’s a win for the police, it is a win for the individual because these individuals, they shouldn’t be in jail.”

The center will be open for those with low-level offenses. Data shows that 68% of the people arrested for criminal trespass in the county have mental health needs.

Data and experts also show that most criminal trespass charges are brought against homeless people. The center ideally would help the homeless find housing.

“It is a step toward trying to shift the burden of mental health that has largely relied on the criminal justice system back to the community, which I believe is a positive thing,” Davis said.

As for the process, officials want the jail diversion program to work before someone is jailed. An officer would apprehend someone for a low-level crime and then take them to the center. From there, the officer would leave.

“The goal is to do the best thing for this group of people and to help them so that we’re not seeing them back in the system,” district attorney Sharen Wilson said.

The center needs to be welcoming and have resources to help people with either housing or treatment, Wilson said.

“If you have stable long-term community resources, that is going to give you more bang for your buck than arresting someone,” Davis said.

If the jail diversion center would’ve opened at the start of 2020, nearly 1,500 people wouldn’t have gone to jail, data shows. At the Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD in Harris County, more than 80% of the people who go to the diversion center were picked up for trespassing, CEO Wayne Young said.

The Harris County diversion center helped about 3,000 people avoid jail in its first two years of operation. It opened in September 2018. Almost half of the people served were homeless when first brought to the center. In an external report of the Harris Center, data shows that about 90% of the people who leave the diversion center don’t come back, Young said.

The report also found that people with five or more bookings were 3.1 times less likely to be booked in jail again if they were brought to the diversion center.

“That connection to ongoing care and support is what’s critical,” Young said. “The center can kind of break that cycle.”

But not only will the county be helping people. It’ll also save money. In Harris County, the county saves $5.54 in jail costs for every dollar it spends on the diversion center.

Waybourn estimates that this center can reduce the handling budget 40% to 50%.

“It has the potential of saving the county millions of dollars,” Whitley said.