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Gregg County considers in-house mental health treatment for inmates

Longview News-Journal - 12/30/2017

The practice of sending Gregg County Jail inmates who are deemed incompetent to stand trial to state hospitals for psychiatric care - and the sometimes lengthy waits that come with that process - soon could be a thing of the past.

County judges, the sheriff's office and other officials are looking into a program that could make Gregg County one of the first in the state to provide in-house mental health care to help restore jail inmates to competency.

Inmates are declared incompetent by a judge after a psychiatric examination shows they are unable to consult with their attorneys or understand legal proceedings. Once a defendant is ruled incompetent, the trial is on hold until he or she can receive treatment and regain competency.

However, long waits are common for treatment at state mental hospitals. For a maximum-security facility, the wait can be eight months or more before inmates are transferred, then another 120 days for treatment. And if the treatment doesn't restore an inmate to competency in that time period, the process might have to be repeated.

Judge Alfonso Charles of the 124th District Court said an in-jail mental health care program could greatly reduce the number of defendants waiting for this type of state treatment.

"The goal would be to deal with as many incompetency cases as possible and eliminate or greatly reduce the need to send people to state hospitals," he said.

Charles said the law that allows county jails to run these programs requires the facilities to contract with at least two psychiatrists, have a designated space in the jail for inmates receiving services, administer any prescriptions and complete two competency evaluations during treatment at 21 and 55 days, allowing defendants to be found competent earlier.

He said if doctors couldn't help a defendant be deemed competent after 60 days in the Gregg County Jail, the inmate might need to be transferred to a state facility, but the number of cases should be much lower.

"The biggest difference is that it would speed up the process," Charles said.

He said the services would be available for defendants accused of nonviolent crimes as well as those who would require a maximum-security bed at a state hospital.

These maximum-security inmates could be the ones affected most by shortened trial delays.

Gary Joe Murphy, 54 of Kilgore, who is charged with murder in a September 2015 stabbing at a Longview motel, was ruled incompetent to stand trial in November 2016. Murphy waited about nine months before being transferred for psychiatric treatment.

And Kambresha Williams, 22, of Longview, who is charged in a May 2016 murder, was judged to be incompetent to stand trial in April and has been waiting for treatment since.

The in-house treatment program is at least several months away from becoming official, but Charles said he and others involved have been in contact with officials in Lubbock County, where the jail runs a program like the one he hopes to establish in Gregg County, as well as Community HealthCore, which would provide the medical services.

County Judge Bill Stoudt said officials are in the preliminary stage of determining what the program would look like. Right now, they're focused on logistics and estimating the cost.

"Especially if we have to fund it (ourselves), it would take a lot of people's approval," Stoudt said, including from the commissioners court and state officials.

Charles said it would make a significant impact on the court system, but only if it is "economically feasible." Stoudt and Charles said state grants available in 2018 could help cover the startup costs of the program.

Shorter wait times for trials also could move inmates out of jail quicker, saving the county money.

Stoudt said the "study group" of officials plans to reconvene in February to look at next steps and review what they've heard from the state, Lubbock County, Community HealthCore and the many offices that would be involved in implementation.

Stoudt said there's still "a lot to do," but as competency cases become more prevalent in Gregg County, the treatment program could provide a local solution sooner than the state can reduce its wait lists.

"It's another tool we are trying to develop to address a problem every county in the state is dealing with right now," he said.

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