The criminal justice system has become the default mental health care provider for many Texans. In fact, one in four Texas inmates has a mental health need of some kind.
Knowing all this, the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals have just embarked on a joint project – creating the Judicial Commission on Mental Health. Its mission is to look for collaborative ways to locate and help those with mental illness as they enter and exit jails, prisons and courtrooms.
Kristi Taylor is executive director of the judicial commission. She says overcrowded dockets and failures of communication are among the reasons the justice system has had difficulty integrating mental health support into its work. She says judges also need training to handle complicated cases that have a mental health component.
To create the commission, Taylor says the state’s high courts looked to other models of collaboration between courts and mental health infrastructure that have been successful.
“Texas really focused on successful models in the past,” Taylor says. “I worked with the Supreme Court Children’s Commission. It was created to help strengthen courts for families and children who were in the child welfare system. And so the Supreme Court found that model really helpful.”
Taylor says the collaboration between the state’s two highest courts – one that handles criminal cases, the other, civil – is crucial because mental health is a factor in both kinds of cases. But services availability is different.
“We have families that come to us and tell us about how they have a son who needs to be committed, but it’s very difficult,” Taylor says. “And the advice that they’ve been given is to let him go ahead and break a law, and try to access services through the jails.”
The collaboration also intends to communicate their work, and the needs of people interacting with the justice system, to the Legislature.
“We’re a connector” Taylor says.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.