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Dallas County officials try to ease jail pressure with more mental health funding

Dallas County Commissioners Court - Commissioners Dr. Elba Garcia and John Wiley Price
Jacob Wells
/
KERA News
Dallas County Commissioners John Wiley Price and Dr. Elba Garcia at the Commissioners Court on Sept. 20, 2022.

The lack of space at state mental hospitals has commissioners and staff looking elsewhere.

Elected officials in Dallas County approved spending over $4.3 million on a problem that has plagued its jail: the lack of beds in state mental hospitals for defendants deemed incompetent to stand trial.

The money is meant to reserve a modest number of spaces in North Texas behavioral health facilities for people to regain competence and return to the criminal court system.

"We have been talking for a long time about the big challenge that we have with competency,” said Dallas County Commissioner Elba Garcia. “So I feel very optimistic.”

The money, which comes from the county’s share of federal COVID-19 relief dollars, will fund 16 beds total. According to a county proposal, it will serve about 113 people over the course of a year.

The North Texas Behavioral Health Authority (NTBHA) will serve as the contractor and solicit bids from mental health entities to provide the actual health care services, said Walter Taylor, NTBHA’s Chief Strategy Officer.

“Our hope [is] that the providers who are in the area will see the bid, they’ll read it, and they will find the capacity, somehow, to rise to the occasion,” Taylor told KERA.

Providers will earn $800 per day per bed. Taylor said it was possible the beds could be located at different facilities.

At a Tuesday meeting, Garcia and Commissioner John Wiley Price brought up the problem of people transferred to a facility to have their competency restored, but who lose competency again upon return as their court case languishes.

“Who’s going to be in charge of making sure, once they’re restored to competency, that those individuals get to court immediately?” Price asked.

County staff said part of the contract with NTBHA is for the agency to hire a coordinator to help the county with that transition back to court.

The state of Texas is typically responsible for treating people who are deemed incompetent to stand trial, but there are hundreds of people in the Dallas County Jail awaiting transfer to a state mental hospital. The Dallas Morning News reported over the summer that some people have waited years for competency restoration services, sometimes longer than any potential sentence.

Taylor said there are “a lot of different factors” in how long it can take a person to regain competency to re-enter a court proceeding, but he hopes 30 to 60 days is achievable through the new program.

The Dallas County Jail was at about 82% capacity on Wednesday.

Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at bjaspers@kera.org. You can follow Bret on Twitter @bretjaspers.

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Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.