As eligibility grows, more people in Tarrant County can get treatment instead of jail time

The Tarrant County Mental Health Jail Diversion Center is an effort to keep people with mental illness out of jail.

By Miranda Suarez, KERA NewsDecember 5, 2023 9:30 am, , ,

From KERA News:

Joe Jernigan didn’t have to go to jail. He chose to, he said.

This past October, a police officer was writing him a ticket after he stole a bottle of wine from a convenience store, but he asked to go to jail instead, Jernigan recalled. He needed to sober up, and he needed help.

“I’ve reached the point where I was no longer safe to myself, you know?” Jernigan said. “The last thing I want to do is be involved with someone else getting hurt because of my actions.”

In jail, Jernigan found an unexpected alternative to incarceration, called the Tarrant County Mental Health Jail Diversion Center. It is a facility where low-level offenders with mental illness or substance use issues can get treatment instead of jail time.

Jernigan transferred out of the jail and into the center — a former assisted living facility tucked into Fort Worth’s Fairmount neighborhood, just around the corner from the popular shops and restaurants on Magnolia Avenue.

He spent a few days connecting with the center’s peer specialists, employees who carry their own diagnoses or have been through the criminal justice system themselves. The center also helped him get into a six-month residential treatment program, which felt like the right next step to help him stay sober and take care of his kids, he said.

“They’re learning. They’re at the ages now, they can see me, and they know what’s going on. I can’t damage them,” he said.

Jails across the country have become de facto mental health and substance use treatment centers. But the harsh environment of jail can wear away at people’s mental health, making their symptoms worse, experts say. And then there’s the question of justice. If someone’s crime is connected to their illness, what good does it do to put them in jail?

The Mental Health Jail Diversion Center opened in 2022 to answer that question.

Yfat Yossifor / KERA News

Employees work on their computers in the living room of the Mental Health Jail Diversion Center on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, in Fort Worth. Residents meet with councils and peers to begin a treatment program individualized for their needs.

An alternative to jail

Center director Mark Tittle gave a tour of the building while preparing to welcome nine more guests, on top of the nine already staying there.

“Doubles our numbers right there,” Tittle said. “That’s exciting for us.”

The county funds the center, and MHMR, Tarrant County’s mental health authority, operates it. The building is two floors, with bedrooms, a kitchen, TVs and a lending library with books and games – much different than a jail cell.

“We try to keep it airy, open, bright, happy for the people that come in here. We want them to know that they’re welcome,” Tittle said.

The center’s scope has grown in the nearly two years since it opened. At first, it only accepted people brought in on criminal trespassing charges. In March, the county expanded the list of eligible charges, adding theft, possession of marijuana, disorderly conduct, false report and making threats.

As of September, the eligibility expanded even more, Tittle said. Now almost any nonviolent misdemeanor can get diverted, with some exceptions, like weapons offenses and DWIs. From January 2022 through this October, the center saw 706 referrals.

People come to the center voluntarily, and they can leave whenever they want. People have stayed anywhere from 20 minutes to three months, Tittle said, but the average is a few days.

At the center, people can get a physical health exam, mental health treatment and substance use counseling. They can also get help finding housing, accessing benefits, searching for a job and finding their family members.

Pretty much everyone who uses the diversion center is experiencing homelessness, Tittle said. When living on the street, it can be hard to avoid criminal charges. Someone might trespass to find a place to sleep. They might get arrested for public intoxication, because they live in public areas.

These individuals can become “frequent fliers” in the criminal justice system, said Judge Deborah Nekhom, a Tarrant County misdemeanor court judge.

“I have one gentleman that I’ve seen in my court over and over and over again, so many times that I know his face and I know his name,” Nekhom said. “Every time he comes in, it’s for a new criminal trespass or a public intoxication, some combination of the two.”

Yfat Yossifor / KERA News

Director Mark Tittle chats with a person in the dining area on the other side of the wall Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, at the Tarrant County Mental Health Jail Diversion Center in Fort Worth.

Nekhom spoke to KERA about the diversion center in April, shortly after it expanded eligibility for the first time. Justice doesn’t always have to involve punishment, she said. She gave the example of a man who hangs out outside a convenience store and keeps trying to steal beer. Getting him mental health, addiction treatment and housing will solve both his and the store owner’s problems better than jail could, she said.

“It just doesn’t make sense to prosecute homelessness,” Nekhom said. “It’s not illegal to be homeless. It’s not illegal, necessarily, to be addicted to substances. What the preferred thing to do would be to get these folks help, and not to prosecute them and put them in jail over and over and over again.”

The main challenge for the diversion center so far has been getting people to use it.

Numbers are up compared to the beginning of the year, but the center still sees an average of 10 clients a day, compared to the goal of 33, MHMR Behavioral Health Chief Ramey Heddins told Tarrant County commissioners in October.

MHMR has been working with local law enforcement agencies to raise awareness of the center. Dallas County’s diversion center has had similar growing pains.

Yfat Yossifor / KERA News

The kitchen at the Mental Health Jail Diversion Center Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, in Fort Worth. Tarrant County law enforcement has the option of offering the diversion center for offenders instead of going to jail.

Harris County’s diversion center was Texas’ first when it opened in 2018, and it could give a glimpse at the future of newer centers like Tarrant’s.

It took time for police officers to choose to bring people to the diversion center on their own, said Wayne Young, the CEO of Harris County’s mental health authority, which runs the diversion center there.

“You’re talking about a mindset change for some law enforcement. Many of them are very supportive and very engaged. Others have different perspectives,” Young said. “It takes some time to help build their confidence that you really have an intervention that’s going to make a difference.”

At first, most of the referrals Harris County’s diversion center received came from the DA’s office. Today, it’s about half prosecutor referrals and half police, Young said.

In five years, Harris County’s center has made more than 9,300 diversions, Young said. In May, they opened a new diversion center for young people, as an alternative to juvenile detention.

Diversion centers are “kind of a dream come true” for people like Young who work in mental health, he said.

Yfat Yossifor / KERA News

Director Mark Tittle chats with resident Joe Jernigan in the lobby Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, at the Tarrant County Mental Health Jail Diversion Center in Fort Worth.

“Our societies and communities have unintentionally overcriminalized mental illness,” he said.

Before the diversion center opened in Tarrant County, Jernigan’s theft charge might have become a stain on his record. But because he went, the charges have been dropped, and he’s free to go to his new treatment program.

“When you’re going through this thing, everything is kind of you just kind of in limbo,” Jernigan said. “You don’t know if it’s going to work out. There’s just a lot of mixed feelings. They’ve been there to support me through all that.”

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