Due to a growing population of mentally ill offenders, and a high rate of low-level crimes, the city of Houston opened the new Judge Ed Emmett Mental Health Diversion Center in October. The Center, which opened in midtown several years ago, contains 29 beds meant to house non-violent offenders with mental illness. The aim of the facility is to provide an alternative to jail for these offenders by allowing them to seek treatment instead. The Center houses people for anywhere from a few hours to a few days.
Throughout the country there has been a trend to implement diversion programs in cases where offenders with mental illness commit low-level crimes. The goal is to prevent overcrowding in jails and provide appropriate treatment to prevent recidivism. Prison and jail tend to exacerbate the symptoms of mental illness and diversion programs can go a long way in curbing the problem.
Houston recognized that county jail was not always the appropriate place for offenders with mental illness. Some of the 9,000 individuals in lock-up had returned 70-80 times for offenses such as loitering and trespassing. Many of these offenders had a mental disability. While the program currently focuses on those offenders who have committed Class B misdemeanors, there is hope that it will expand to cover other offenses.
The Center was built as part of the Harris County Mental Health Jail Diversion Program. This program helped connect those with severe mental illness who were already behind bars with mental health treatment and other services. While a 2016 study found that the program only improved outcomes for a small fraction of offenders, authorities are hopeful that the program will improve on those results. The program is still a work in progress.
In recent years, the county also began programs to keep offenders with mental illness out of solitary confinement while in prison or jail by offering them therapy instead. This is an important step since studies show that solitary confinement tends to exacerbate the symptoms of mental illness and that those with mental illness are more likely to be placed in isolation.
If you or a loved one with a mental disability has been arrested or convicted of a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Elizabeth Kelley specializes in representing individuals with mental illnesses and intellectual and developmental disabilities. To schedule a consultation call (509) 991-7058.