Amid debate to defund the police, Dallas County DA’s plan to divert mentally ill offenders does something better
It should not be against the law to be mentally ill. Yet the Dallas County jail is perennially the second largest mental health treatment facility in the state — trailing only its counterpart in Houston.
That unjustly grim statistic has been reported so often that many Texans brush right past it, just as we do the mentally ill individuals loitering outside convenience stores or asking for money in shopping center parking lots.
But not Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot. He vowed after taking office to end another form of insanity: Tossing these suffering individuals onto the same old legal hamster wheel and hoping for a different result.
Eighteen months after Creuzot’s pledge, Dallas County commissioners can jumpstart the DA’s proposal for a vastly more effective way forward when they vote Tuesday on the 2021 budget
“Maybe I’m not looking so dumb after all,” Creuzot texted me just after commissioners voiced tentative support earlier this month for the $1 million needed to create a deflection center that will get these low-level offenders off the streets and on a path to recovery.
Creuzot’s text referenced the firestorm he created in April 2019 when he announced a series of reforms aimed at decriminalizing poverty and creating a justice system that is fairer across race and socio-economic lines.
Looking back at his promise to find a better solution for petty offenses such as criminal trespass — the charge that most often lands mentally ill and homeless citizens in jail — I’d say Creuzot looks pretty darn smart.
Dallas Deflects is the DA office’s first-ever attempt to deal — prior to arrest — with nonviolent offenses. If the $1 million comes through, hopes are high that the program, modeled after one in Houston that has shown outstanding results, can open in March 2021.
Rather than haul individuals to jail, police officers will be able to take the men and women to a treatment center where they will receive more and better help — and get it faster and cheaper.
This could be the start of something even bigger when you consider that of 68,100 bookings into the Dallas County jail in 2018, mental illness was suspected in 23% of those cases. From 2015 through 2018, it cost the county — that’s you the taxpayer — $11 million just to jail those booked on criminal trespassing
Jail costs for those who exhibit signs of mental illness are high because they must be housed in a behavioral observation area, often for many days. Yet that unit provides upkeep, not quality care.
Police officers also waste hours waiting to process the mentally ill and homeless at the jail. With violent crime a growing concern, there’s no reasonable case for a cop spending four hours getting a low-level offender behind bars.
The new program will allow officers to offer the Homeward Bound treatment center as an option. If the offender accepts, the cop can be back on the streets in as few as 15 minutes.
For the last 35 years, Homeward Bound has provided addiction and psychiatric crisis treatment — both short-term care and longer residential stays — for the poorest and most desperate residents of Dallas County.
It is the perfect partner for Dallas Deflects because it has long worked to stop the cycle of arrests, detentions, hospitalizations and homelessness.
The $1 million that the county commissioners are set to vote on will cover the necessary renovation of a now-empty 1969-era wing of Homeward Bound to meet current health care standards and create space for a Parkland Hospital-run clinic.
Creuzot told me that believing the never-ending criminal trespass loop will solve homelessness or mental illness “is plain and simple insane thinking.”
Doing business that way is also inhumane, he said, because jail can only make the mentally ill person’s problems worse. “It’s incumbent on me to look for avenues where we do things better and cheaper and don’t cause harm to the individuals or to the community in general,” he said.
He shared the case histories of two repeat offenders to illustrate why his office needed a better solution:
Over the past 20 years, 55-year-old “Mr. A” has been arrested in Dallas County 64 times — 47 of those for criminal trespass. Of the 1,500 days he’s spent in jail, 1,220 of them were in the behavioral observation section.
Since 1996, 48-year-old “Ms. B” — who is in the county jail’s mental-health unit right now — has been arrested 59 times, with 43 of those for criminal trespass. She’s spent 1,835 days in jail, of which 719 and counting have been in behavioral observation.
Julie Turnbull, chief of the office’s restorative justice division, and Marsha Edwards, director of special programs, said that “deflecting” people before they get in the system rather than after they are charged is a big step forward in Dallas.
Turnbull said it’s understandable that business owners call police about loitering. “Rather than arrest them at all, we want to engage them with services.”
Many days they wondered if they would ever get the support for this better plan. But as discussion of effective policing throughout the county in recent months, the commissioners seem ready to provide the remaining dollars needed.
Already on board: The Parkland health system will provide almost $1 million a year in medical services. North Texas Behavioral Health Authority will provide $1.4 million annually in mental health services.
Doug Denton, executive director of Homeward Bound, says police officers have informally directed people to the southern Dallas facility for a long time. “This formalizes what we’ve been doing for years and provides the resources to help many more people,” Denton said.
“These are folks who do not need to be in jail but yet are a danger or a nuisance to themselves and others if they are left on the streets,” he said.
Once the remodel is complete, Homeward Bound will initially be able to serve up to 16 people at any one time in its deflection center. “We can immediately get them stabilized rather than going through the jail process where it can be days before their mental health needs are properly addressed,” Denton said.
Another big advantage is that from the moment they enter Homeward Bound’s doors, they will be helped by a staff that has battled — and overcome — the same problems they face.
If Dallas can get the kind of results that Harris County is seeing with its Judge Ed Emmett Mental Health Diversion Center, we may decide the folks behind Dallas Deflects are geniuses.
Wayne Young, CEO of the county mental-health authority that provides the care at the Emmett center, told me that since it opened two years ago, it has recorded 3,069 drop-offs for mental health treatment.
That’s more than 3,000 people who received quality help instead of being taken to jail for low-level misdemeanors.
The same group experienced a 50% reduction in new bookings. And for every $1 spent on diversion, the county avoided spending $5.54 on criminal justice costs.
Common sense tells us that the woman we just passed on a downtown sidewalk — arguing with the voices in her head — needs something other than jail. The same is true for the guy walking out in stopped freeway traffic.
“They need to be redirected, to be stabilized, to find medical help and housing,” Denton said. “To help them not go back into the environment that is causing them their problems in living a normal life.”
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