Reentry and Integration Division
Lawyers help mentally ill get treatment,not jail
By Chris Moran, Staff Writer
Harris County plans to start a public defender office in October that would represent the mentally ill in about 1,400 misdemeanor cases a year, as well as other types of cases involving indigent defendants.
The county's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council is looking for ways to reduce chronic jail overcrowding. One of its first initiatives is to have a public defender office help divert the mentally into treatment rather than jail time on the premise that it will reduce the number of times so-called "frequent fliers" end up back before a judge.
A study out of Austin on Monday gives some of the first hard evidence that backs their assertion. The Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense -- to which Harris County is applying for $4.4 million to start its public defender office -- finds that mentally ill criminal offenders who are treated instead of jailed are less likely to reoffend for up to 18 months.
The study also indicates that defendants who have a specialized mental health public defender were twice as likely to receive probation over jail time than those without such defenders.
"The defendant gets linked in to the local treatment system and that reduces their chance of re-offending. The county ends up putting fewer people in jail, which saves money," said Jim Bethke, Task Force director.
Caprice Cosper, director of Harris County's Office of Criminal Justice Coordination, said she is not surprised at the findings. She added, though, that a public defender cannot effect the change alone. There must be community resources to connect mentally ill offenders with treatment, medication, housing and other services.