Travis County commissioners will vote on the future of the mental health diversion center

Travis County, TEXAS (KXAN) — Travis County commissioners may vote to move forward with recommendations from a forensic mental health project conducted Tuesday by Dell Medical School.

The project report identified five “high priority” recommendations made at the end of the 10-month project, which looked at people in the Travis County Jail with mental health issues and substance use. The recommendations were as follows:

  • Simplify data sharing and update the county’s “technology platform”.
  • Set up a mental health diversion center
  • Pilot housing programs and establish permanent housing solutions
  • Increase the number of peer specialists where people would intersect with the mental health and criminal law system
  • Restore the lawyer program in first appearance

Report: 5 ways to keep people with mental disorders out of jail in Travis County

According to the report, there are approximately 900 people with a “mental health identifier” in the Travis County Jail at any given time, which is just under 40 percent of the population.

The researchers also collected data on bookings from September 2018 to September 2022 and found at least 100 people who “represented people who cycle in and out of prison” with a mental health flag. The people in that pool each had at least 3 arrests. One had as many as 89, according to the report.

Of these people, 75% of the arrests were for petty crimes. The trespassing charges accounted for 55% of the multiple arrests.

Mental Health Detour Center

Travis County’s largest mental health facility is not a hospital. According to county judge Andy Brown, the largest mental health facility in our county is the jail.

“Which is unacceptable to me,” Brown told KXAN previously. “So we’re trying to follow models across the country who are doing a better job of identifying people brought in by police who really have an unmet mental health need.”

Brown and other county leaders traveled around the country researching existing models of mental health diversion in places like Nashville, Miami-Dade and Harris County.

The largest mental health facility in Travis County is its prison. Judge Brown looks at diversion options

The Dell Medical report also recommended that the county create a mental health diversion center, where people with mental health disorders or substance use could receive treatment and services instead of sitting in jail.

The report estimated between 60 and 136 people who might be detour-eligible each month and recommended that the facility have 32 to 70 beds. To predict population growth over the next decade, he recommended that there should be 40-88 bed places in the future.

Students at the LBJ School of Public Affairs created a calculator to estimate how much the facility would cost, according to the report. To build a 32-bed diversion center at just over 30,000 square feet, it would cost the county about $30 million to create the facility and about $5 million annually to operate.

But the report shows the county could actually save money by keeping people out of jail.

Looking at Miami-Dade as an example, the report found that while its diversion center is still under construction, crisis intervention teams were able to divert enough arrests to close one of their jails, “saving about $12 million annually in taxpayer dollars.”

Between 2010 and 2018, the CIT team helped reduce the prison population by nearly 40%, the report said.

“They estimate that this has resulted in approximately 109,704 fewer incarcerated days for inmates annually, which equates to a cost reduction of $29 million annually. Conversely, they expect their diversion center (once it opens) to operate at approximately $25 million annually, which will include a range of services not currently recommended for Travis County, including long-term support housing” , says the report.

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