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June 21, 2006     (512) 463-0300

COMMITTEE CONSIDERS IMPACT OF MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES ON CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee heard testimony today on how inmates, parolees, and probationers with mental health disorders affect the prison and rehabilitation system in Texas.

According to Texas Council on Offenders with Mental Impairments director Dee Wilson, of the 650,000 people in Texas prisons, on probation or on parole. more than 120,000 have received mental health services since 1985. Of these individuals, 50,000 have what Wilson termed "the big three" disorders: schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, or major depression.

Committee Chairman John Whitmire of Houston expressed concern about the reasoning behind putting people in jail who would be better served through treatment of their mental disorder. "We ended up spending large amounts of money to incarcerate them, when it would have been better spent on the front end with their mental health issues. And I think that will be a large part of our report back to the Lt. Governor and to the Legislature that we're not doing the job at the front end," he said. "We're faced with a prison population backlog now, so we're looking at expanding that system at a very costly price, whereas if we spent that money on the front end, on mental health issues we could save a lot of heartache, help people that need help, and not have to expand our criminal justice system."

The deputy commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, Dr. Dave Wanser, said the state is taking steps to funnel people with mental disorders into proper channels. The state is implementing jail diversion programs designed to get treatment for sufferers of mental disease, especially non-violent offenders who commit crimes related to their disorder. Officials are also developing a crisis intervention team model, that seeks to put offenders with psychological disorders into a mental health facility, rather than state or county jail.

Wanser added that Texas was one of seven states to receive a federal grant to improve mental health care for criminal justice systems. The bulk of the money, he said, will go toward information technology improvements that will help the various state agencies that deal with mentally-ill offenders better cooperate.

Wanser said that the state would be better served in the long run identifying and treating mentally-ill offenders before they enter the criminal justice system, and making sure that offenders get adequate treatment after they enter the system. "The savings play out across all kinds of systems. Everything from emergency rooms, to car crashes, to school performance, to reducing child welfare cases, all of those things play out as benefits of investing in mental health and substance abuse treatments in the community," he said.

Session video and all other webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website's audio and video archive pages.

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