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County seeks funds to aid mentally ill defendants
The Collin County Commissioners Court on Monday approved plans to seek a state grant that would help provide better defense for mentally ill defendants and defray or reduce the costs of housing mentally ill inmates at the Collin County Detention Center.
The grant is being sought by district judges, county court-at-law judges, the sheriff's department and other county offices to develop and implement the Collin County Mental Health Managed Counsel Program.
District Judge John R. Roach told the commissioners, "The average cost of housing seriously mentally ill inmates is $200 per day compared to an average of $70 per day for the general jail population."
He said there are 16 seriously mentally ill inmates in the Collin County Detention Center and 39 other inmates with some form of mental illness.
He said the added expenses include extra medication, using more guards and utilizing case workers to monitor and support case progression.
"When we talk about mental illness in the criminal justice system, we are usually talking about someone who has been charged with a crime," Roach said. "The question for the criminal justice system is whether that individual is competent to stand trial. If not, the system must wait until the individual regains competency before the case can even begin. The question becomes, what do we do with the individual while we wait for competency to be regained?"
He said the average length of stay for seriously mentally ill inmates in Collin County is 430 percent longer than general-population inmates, or 213 days vs. 49 days.
"Over the past two and a half years, inmates found incompetent and either transported or waiting to be transported to Terrell for competency restoration have cost the taxpayers of Collin County in excess of $1.9 million," Roach said. "The system is costly and needs to be fixed."
He added, "There is often a significant delay in getting the criminal defendant to trial once competency is restored, which often results in the defendant losing competency pending trial. Thus, the process must start over again."
He said a state district judge in Austin has held that holding an individual whose competency is in question for an indefinite period of time is a violation of that individual's constitutional rights. As a result, that court has ordered that all such inmates be transferred to a state hospital by June 1.
"The implication is that if the state does not accomplish this mammoth task, the state will be in contempt and may result in an order to release these criminal defendants into our communities with no supervision or other way to track these individuals," Roach said."However,I believe the more pressing matter for the county centers on the safety of our communities as a direct result of a court's order from Austin.
"The funding from this grant will allow us to contract a team of individuals whose purpose is to guarantee the systematic handling of mental health defendants through the criminal justice system by targeting better criminal defense representation, lay the foundation for in-house mental competency restoration, track these defendants if they are released into the community pending restoration and streamlining the handling of these cases."
Joining Roach at the commissioners court meeting were Chief Randy Clark, county jail administrator, and Judge Weldon Copeland.
Pamela DeVault, court administrator, said the county will apply for a grant from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission that would include $250,774 from the state and a 20 percent county match of $62,694 the first year, totaling $313,468. She said a new grant application must be completed each year. Year two would require a 40 percent match, year three a 60 percent match and year four an 80 percent match.
She said the Collin County Mental Health Managed Counsel Program would be similar to those of several other counties in Texas.
"Each year's grant application amount will depend on program resource requirements," she said. "Our goal for the first year of the program is to reduce the average length of stay for mentally ill inmates by 35 percent. It is difficult to determine an exact figure, but looking at the past two years' estimates, we would hope to save about $250,000."
She said a decision on whether the grant will be approved is expected to be made June 8 in Austin. If approved, the grant period for the first year will be Oct. 1, 2012 through Sept. 30, 2013, the next fiscal year.