Tarrant County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to send more people into mental health treatment instead of jail.
Republicans and Democrats on the Commissioners Court came together to expand the list of nonviolent crimes that make someone eligible to go to the Mental Health Jail Diversion Center instead of the county jail.
The county always planned to expand eligibility for the center, and that time has come because the center is so underutilized, said Democratic Commissioner Roy Charles Brooks.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” he said.
Now, people can transfer to the center directly from the jail, in a process coordinated with MHMR, the county’s mental health agency.
“During the book-in process, a conference between MHMR, the originating law enforcement agency and the Tarrant County jail supervisor will determine if the charges can be dropped, and the individual diverted to the Center,” , according to a press release.
Ramey Heddins, chief of behavioral health at MHMR, said last week the center serves about 30 people a month, but it should be serving that number or more a day.
These are big changes from how the center has worked since it opened last year. Before, individual police officers had to bring someone to the center themselves. If they brought an eligible suspect to jail instead, that suspect would be held there — and they could end up on a years-long waitlist for a state mental health bed.
The center only accepted people charged with criminal trespassing. With their vote, commissioners added five more nonviolent, misdemeanor charges to the list eligible for diversion:
- Possession of marijuana
- Disorderly conduct
- False report
- Terroristic threat (if there is no violence)
The diversion center is run by MHMR. At the center, people can get mental health treatment, connections to resources like food stamps, and up to a year of case management to get them on their feet. Most of the people who go to the center are experiencing homelessness, officials say.
The recommendations for the changes came from the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office and the Tarrant County District Attorney. People with a history of violent crime will not be eligible.
Republican Commissioner Manny Ramirez, who represents northwest Tarrant County, believes the direct pipeline from the jail to the diversion center will be a game-changer. That will take some of the pressure off police officers, who had to decide where to bring a suspect, he said.
“It was left to independent officer discretion, and there was no real guidance or training on how to accomplish the goal,” Ramirez said.
Tarrant County’s neighbor to the east is making similar efforts to keep mentally ill people out of jail and off long waitlists for state mental health beds. Dallas County hired a consultant last week to figure out how to get more people to its own diversion center.
Dallas County also sued the state last week for the lack of state mental health beds.
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