It is well established that in Texas, our county jails are our largest mental health institutions. In Dallas County, for instance, 54% of the people who were booked into the county jail in April were flagged for mental health issues.
Some of these inmates are homeless people who get arrested — over and over — for minor offenses such as criminal trespass. These are not the criminals who break into people’s homes or burglarize businesses, but men or women who get in trouble for things like loitering in parking lots and gas stations.
These offenders usually get a monthlong sentence in jail for trespass, according to the Dallas County district attorney’s office. Some have racked up dozens of arrests over the years.
We should all agree that sticking someone in jail who is not violent and who is clearly unwell is not the smart or humane way to improve their mental health or to prevent crime. That’s why we’re optimistic about the Dallas County Deflection Center, a new program championed by the Dallas County district attorney’s office, county government and health officials, and other civic leaders in North Texas.
The program works like this: Instead of being carted to jail, a mentally ill person who would otherwise be arrested for a low-level, nonviolent misdemeanor will have the option of being taken by police to the Deflection Center. The facility, located in a wing of the Homeward Bound addiction and behavioral health treatment center, will have 16 beds for short stays. Program participants will be in observation for a day or two and get connected to peer support staff — workers who themselves have experienced mental health problems and recovery.
The center staff will work with the participants to find them psychiatric care, treatment for substance abuse, transitional housing or other services that they might need. Parkland Health will have a primary-care clinic on site.
Officials anticipate that they can help more than 400 people a year. But this is far from a cure-all, and anyone who works with people who are chronically homeless knows that many of them need repeated interventions to get to a better place.
Still, a similar program for low-level offenders in Harris County gives us reason to hope. Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot told us that the Judge Ed Emmett Mental Health Diversion Center in Houston showed a 50% reduction in new jail bookings among its participants.
Dallas police will be trained on the program, Creuzot said. The center will open in June.
“It’s obviously an innovative approach to homelessness and mental illness,” he said. “It’s a break from tradition.”
We welcome this break from tradition. It’s about time we tried something new.