False economies
Fri February 4, 2011 12:24 pm

The challenge for Steve Ogden, Jim Pitts and their lieutenants this session is to produce a budget with real, not imagined, fiscal responsibility. Given the anti-government-spending fervor in the political landscape, it will be very tempting to zero out touchy-feely-sounding things like community mental health services and go home and give speeches about the responsibility of local communities and home-grown charity to take care of their own. Actually, that's pretty much what happened when the state faced the $10 billion shortfall in 2003, the year  that certain state leaders point to as proof of their fiscal restraint.

But Harris County law enforcement leaders know full well what would happen next: an increased burden on local law enforcement and local taxpayers. Without the help of community mental health services, the mentally ill wind up in our jails and prisons. In 2003, the Legislature's budget cuts had the unintended consequence of conveying an unwanted distinction on the Harris County Jail: it is the largest psychiatric facility in the state of Texas. I wrote about this burden on law enforcement in our August, 2010, issue.

This week, I ran into some of the Houston Police Department personnel I interviewed for that story, waiting for their turn to testify before Senate Finance that proposed cuts to mental health services would make their job even more difficult. Harris County officials filed written testimony this week with the same message. According to a press release:

The Harris County Jail’s executive director for health services, Dr. Michael Seale, and its Detention Bureau commander, Major Mike Smith, say in written testimony to the Finance Committee of the Texas Senate that proposed severe reductions in state funding for community-based mental health care programs would hurt taxpayers while degrading the quality of life for thousands of ill individuals, their families and their communities.

Seale is also an appointee of Gov. Rick Perry to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Smith has served as a patrol deputy, narcotics officer, crime-fighting leader and administrator during his more than 30 years with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Their testimony reflects the views of Sheriff Adrian Garcia and the Sheriffs Association of Texas’ legislative committee, of which Garcia is vice chair.

“In these challenging times for the Texas economy, is there a way to reduce these costs for local and state taxpayers? The answer is yes -- the state can make sure that it is adequately funding community-based mental health services. Not only do these programs help to prevent the type of psychotic episodes that require costly police intervention, jail bookings and jail care, they also save money,” Seale wrote. “According to information from the Department of State Health Services and the Legislative Budget Board, the average daily cost of mental health services per person is approximately $12 in a community-based setting and $137 in prison. Clearly, state and local taxpayers enjoy greater safety and greater savings when state-funded mental health programs succeed with proper resources.”

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office spends at least $27 million yearly in general funds from the county -- whose main revenue source is property taxes – on direct mental health care for jail inmates in accordance with constitutional requirements.

“On any given day about 2,400 detainees in the jail are taking prescribed psychotropic medications -- approximately one fourth of the total jail population. This makes the Harris County Jail – reluctantly -- the largest mental health institution in the state of Texas,” Seale said.

Smith supervises the bureau that provides housing for the approximately 10,000 inmates in Sheriff Garcia’s custody.

“With less funding for community-based mental health care, more inmates will come to the Harris County Jail in crisis,” Smith said in prepared testimony. Among other things, “this leads to more danger and more challenges for my staff,” which is under a hiring freeze. “Further erosion of state mental health funding for programs in the county will lead to more strain on law enforcement and higher bills for taxpayers.”



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