Sheriffs seek mental health funding for jail inmates

Published: Jan. 29, 2013 at 1:34 AM CST|Updated: Jan. 29, 2013 at 3:20 AM CST
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AMARILLO - Sheriffs departments across the state agree that mental illness is a top concern facing county jails.

It's a sad truth that Texas sheriffs want to change. Twenty-four percent of Texas inmates have a serious mental illness.

"Booking those people in jail is not the answer," Potter County Sheriff Brian Thomas said.

The Sheriffs Association of Texas wants more funding to help treat those people.
Right now Texas ranks last in the nation in per capita mental health funding at 39 dollars a head, well under the national average of 125. Many times the burden of housing and treating those people falls to the prison system.

"The jail was designed to hold prisoners, not people who have mental issues," Thomas said. "We have to isolate those cells and we don't have that many isolation cells. We just don't have the room out there for that."

It's estimated it costs taxpayers $137 a day to treat a mental health patient in jail, and only $13 for those same services outside of jail. But the outside treatment is more effective.

"We're actually spending more money in the long run because these people with mental illness have ended up in jails," said Texas Panhandle Centers for Behavioral and Developmental Health Director of Planning Jim Womack said.

There are 20 proposed bills floating around in the legislature that would get more funding to mental health professionals, who say it's better to treat those who need help before they turn into criminals.

"You don't have to wait until a crisis to treat somebody," Womack said. "You can catch them early and alleviate suffering and it doesn't cost as much."

It's an issue that's grown so large, Texas sheriffs aren't sure there's one law that will fix it. But they plan to get one step closer this year.

"I don't know where they're going to come up with it. That's why we have all those wonderful people down in Austin," Thomas said.