Community and mental health leaders refining ideas about alternatives to jail

In the face of an increasing inmate population, the need to expand the Douglas County Jail is pressing, area law enforcement officials say, and the addition of mental health services could do much to alleviate pressure stemming from those rising numbers.

Some of the mental health facilities may include a mental health court, mental health diversion, a work release program, a day reporting center and additional use of electronic monitoring, said Mike Brouwer, re-entry director at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.

These programs, in addition to easing crowding, could be used as an alternative to jail to better treat those in the Douglas County justice system who are seriously mentally ill, Brouwer said.

“We’re exploring what the seriously mentally ill look like in our jail and what alternatives we can explore as a community to help prevent them from being in jail,” Brouwer said.

Brouwer’s comments came in the wake of a town hall meeting Monday at the Douglas County Courthouse at which input was sought on jail population and mental health issues. The county is currently researching how to best react to rising inmate populations and a greater demand to provide mental health care services to people in the county justice system.

The project’s scope has yet to be precisely determined, but officials expect an expansion of the county jail and the construction of a separate intervention center, where nonviolent inmates can be diverted away from the jail for mental health crises or substance abuse problems.

At the meeting, hosted by county officials, a research team shared information about people booked into the jail.

Bobbie Huskey, a member of the research team, said 1,971 bookings were scrutinized over four nonconsecutive months, and 18 percent of those were classified as involving a seriously mentally ill person.

Projecting into 2016, Huskey said that on any given day, around 140 people within the Douglas County justice system could fit the description of seriously mentally ill and thus qualify for treatment alternatives to jail.

County Commissioner Mike Gaughan said such numbers illustrate a need for mental health facilities in the community but that more information is needed to define precisely what would be most beneficial.

“We’re in the business of corrections and helping people get better, and we need to know what is the right type of programming and space to achieve those goals,” Gaughan said.

David Johnson, CEO of Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, said he was also concerned — and hopeful — about the data.

“I think it clearly shows we’ve got reason to move forward and to put together a mix of what services might look like to the group of people that can be diverted (from jail),” he said.

Those services shouldn’t be limited to those within the county’s justice system, however, Johnson said.

“I really think that having a 24/7 crisis facility will help divert people from the ER and really be able to provide qualitative improvements in the community,” he said.

Brouwer said those community improvements could certainly benefit the jail and affect any future expansion projects.

“If we utilize all of the alternatives or just some, it will impact our jail population in a positive way, but we’re still going to have a need to increase space,” Brouwer said. “The original thought was to increase the jail by 150 to 200 beds, but what if we increase by half of that and utilize some of these alternatives?”

In April, about 20 officials from Douglas County government, law enforcement and health care agencies toured San Antonio’s Center for Health Care Services, a nationally respected mental health system in Texas that has kept the nonviolent, mentally ill out of jail. The county has hosted a number of forums on the topic in the past several months and intends to study the issue further, although another meeting has not yet been scheduled.