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Dallas County to state: lawsuit is coming if you don’t find mental health beds

Clay Jenkins.
Bret Jaspers
/
KERA
Dallas County Judge Clay Lewis Jenkins says it's important that the state find mental health beds for defendants deemed incompetent to stand trial.

Dallas commissioners told the Texas Health and Human Services Commission it has 30 days to find suitable mental health beds or face a lawsuit.

Commissioners in Dallas County are escalating their efforts to get needed mental health services to county jail inmates deemed incompetent to stand trial.

These inmates must first have their competency restored before any criminal case can proceed. County officials have pointed out for months that the Texas state government is responsible for making that happen.

There is a long waiting list for competency restoration services in Texas, however. That means people who have yet to be proven guilty are languishing in county jails while they wait for an open spot in a state hospital.

“They may be in great need of mental services and, turns out, did not commit this offense,” Dallas County Judge Clay Lewis Jenkins said. “It’s very important for … taxpayers, victims, and inmates that the state do its job.”

Now, months after sending the Dallas County state legislative delegation recommendations for improving wait times, county commissioners are stepping up their actions.

Through a county attorney, commissioners sent a letter on Tuesday to the Texas Attorney General and the head of the Health and Human Services Commission. It said the county “demands that within 30 days of this correspondence that HHSC designate State facilities with available beds” to accept the more than 300 people currently in the county jail awaiting restoration.

“This is an attempt to resolve this matter without litigation and provide notice,” the letter said. If the state fails to make the beds available, “Dallas County will have no choice but to bring suit … to compel compliance.”

The letter argues the HHSC is in violation of state criminal procedure law, which states that transportation to a mental health facility must happen “within a reasonable amount of time and without undue delay.”

County officials say the average wait time for a maximum security state bed for a male defendant was 831 days as of December 2022, and that health care for these inmates can top $469 per day.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission declined to comment. The attorney general’s office declined to comment.

Jenkins said the county hasn’t had success up to now in conversations with the state about the large number of people waiting for mental health services. The letter, he said, is another attempt to get it resolved.

“That’s a lot of other things that our taxpayers need done that don’t get done because you’re spending nearly $800,000 a month on something that you needn’t spend your money on,” he said.

Jenkins also said that other counties “may” join the legal effort but did not provide additional details.

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.