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Alternatives To Incarceration Transform Lives and Save Taxpayer Dollars

by Commissioner Cook

  • 16 September 2020
  • Author: Doris Sanchez
  • Number of views: 1379

Sending an emergency unit or having a patient end up in jail or the emergency room all cost tax dollars when a client is uninsured or underinsured.

A likely candidate for jail diversion is someone suspected of committing a misdemeanor offense while experiencing symptoms of mental illness.

Jail diversion should not be misinterpreted as being “soft on crime.” The goal is to reduce recidivism or even first-time offenses by offering individuals mental health services and substance use disorder (addiction) treatment. 

This method of managing these types of 911 calls is gaining traction nationwide and ensures the most responsible use of each 911 asset –law enforcement, EMS, fire service and crisis response. 

About 80 percent of the time the team can arrange counseling, psychiatric care or social services support instead of in-patient hospitalization for an individual.  Facilitating care in the least restrictive environment is best for patients, families and taxpayers.

Also, incarceration is unlikely to rehabilitate people with mental illness and can worsen their mental state. 

When law enforcement is at the scene along with a team member, together they can determine if the person should receive mental health treatment or go to jail. The determination is classified as a diversion only if an officer is on scene. 

If a person needs treatment but there is a waiting list for services, team members will keep meeting with the person face-to-face or by phone until the situation is stabilized or a bed becomes available.

The team is also able to assist certain vulnerable individuals with groceries, housing and even tents for the homeless, but this can be challenging with a limited budget and a great need, especially during the pandemic.

Most of the team’s calls are for persons who are suicidal, homicidal or experiencing psychosis. Since the pandemic, calls have doubled from related stress causing an even greater overload of 911 calls on an already small team working throughout the county and every city within.

In 2019, the team responded to 2,415 calls and 95 of those resulted in jail diversions, saving the county $147,440.

Besides Burwell, the team consists of nine crisis response members.

In partnership with Bluebonnet Trails Community Services, 24/7 coverage is available in Williamson County for those in a mental health crisis. Bluebonnet Trails Community Services also provides jail diversion and responds to crisis calls through their 24-hour crisis hotline (800-841-1255). In addition to crisis services in the community, they offer an intake desk at the Georgetown Behavioral Health Institute, crisis respite beds, extended observation beds, access to psychiatric hospital beds and outpatient care in Round Rock, Cedar Park and Taylor. Bluebonnet also offers court-based, jail-based and probation/parole services in collaboration with valued Williamson County partners.

Without our Mobile Outreach Team and Bluebonnet Trails, we would rely only on our law enforcement and EMS paramedics to manage and transport patients suffering from mental health issues.  

Thankfully, we have this great team of highly trained clinicians, allowing EMS and law enforcement to respond to more appropriate calls for their services.

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