Tarrant County leaders expressed support this week for a plan aiming to address mental health and criminal justice by giving an alternative to jail.
The idea of a mental health jail diversion center was discussed Tuesday during a Tarrant County Commissioners Court meeting. Its purpose would be to provide an alternative to jail for people with mental health needs who have been arrested for non-violent, low-level crimes, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said.
“In any of your major urban counties, you have a tremendous number of inmates who have mental health issues. Many of them shouldn’t be in jail, but they’re picked up by the police. There’s really nothing else for them to do but to bring them to jail,” Whitley said. “What we’re trying to do is to create a diversion center, where, let’s say someone’s picked up on criminal trespass. They can be brought to this center. They either need to be gotten back on their meds or they may be high and need to come down from that high, or they may be intoxicated and they need to sober up.”
The idea for the center has already gained the support of Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney Sharen Wilson. According to Wilson, cases related to mental health primarily regard criminal trespass.
“I will stand here and tell you as a person who believes bad people should be locked up,” Wilson said. “These people for the most part, our mentally ill population, should not be in our jails.”
The facility would rely on partnerships throughout the community including John Peter Smith Hospital. JPS President and CEO Robert Earley said this week the need for the facility is clear. Earley urged county leaders to carefully consider all of the logistical challenges.
“From a JPS standpoint, we don’t have at this current time … without this facility … a place to house individuals. As you all know particularly in behavioral and mental health, we’re at full capacity almost every day,” he said. “Consider transportation and consider how you’re going to get people in and out. Then how you’re going to get people out of there, so that’s not just a constant circle. That we just don’t see them coming in and out of the diversion center all the time.”
My Health My Resources (MHMR) of Tarrant County would also play a significant role in the partnership, county officials said. MHMR serves people in need of help with mental health, addiction and substance abuse, intellectual and development delays, early childhood intervention and homelessness.
MHMR CEO Susan Garnett said they also currently work with Tarrant County inmates who are in need of mental health services. About 1,300 inmates from Tarrant County jail are under their care on any given day, according to MHMR.
“Nobody feels good about taking a person who they think hasn’t really committed such a heinous offense that they think they need to be kept away from society, but they feel like the person is not good enough shape to be let go. They’re just not sure what to do with them. This really gives them another chance to do that,” Garnett said.
The issue of mental health and criminal justice in Tarrant County has been an ongoing conversation for several years. Most recently, a lawsuit was filed by the family of an inmate who died by suicide in April 2020. Jail officials were warned Dean Stewart, 50, was going through a mental crisis but he did not receive any mental health services, the lawsuit alleges.
“The facts of Dean’s suicide while in the custody of the TCSD are relatively simple. Dean, who had a history (including several hospitalizations) of psychiatric problems, was arrested on April 5, 2020, for an assault stemming from one of Dean’s paranoidal delusions concerning a car he thought was following him. It was not until April 9, 2020, that Dean’s family realized where he was and why he was there,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit goes on to state Stewart was not provided any medical/mental assistance and/or placed on any suicide watch, despite assurances by the jail administration.
“As a result, Dean was allowed – as was the fear of his family – to end his own life on April 26, 2021,” according to the lawsuit.
The family has retained attorney Chris Gale, a partner at the Corpus Christi based law firm Gale Law Group. In an interview with NBC 5 Wednesday, Gale said Stewart’s family has come to terms with his death but not the reasons surrounding it.
They’re more interested in seeking change and prevention than monetary compensation, Gale said.
“I don’t think it’s a secret in this case that he [Stewart] had some problems and he was having some problems,” he said. “I think the question is at this point, and it’s a little bit unknown, is what did the jail do or what did they ignore in regards to this particular situation?”
NBC 5 reached out to the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office for a comment on the lawsuit Wednesday, but we were referred to DA Wilson’s office. As of this writing, NBC 5 has not received a comment from Wilson’s office.
Judge Whitley also declined to comment on the lawsuit during an interview regarding the jail diversion center, but he did reiterate the issue of jailing inmates with mental health issues.
“As I said in the very beginning, we find that all of the urban counties…that they house the largest of individuals with mental health problems,” he said. “It’s a societal thing. It’s something we have all got to work on collectively to try to better address the issues these folks are facing.”
Whitley said he would like the center opened by Oct. 1, 2021. Though the idea for the facility has received widespread support from law enforcement and health officials, there is still the matter of costs and management logistics.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting ‘Home’ to 741741.