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Editorial: To provide justice, local solutions needed on mental health care

Longview News-Journal - 12/31/2017

It's no secret that many of the inmates housed in prisons and county jails suffer mental illness of some sort.

That does not mean they committed crimes solely because of their condition, and only rarely does it allow them to escape punishment through an insanity defense. Being mentally ill does not make one insane any more than breaking an arm leaves one disabled for life. Both can be treated and an individual made whole again.

The difference is, that if an inmate breaks an arm in jail, treatment comes rapidly. Treatment for mental illness is another matter altogether.

That reality is hitting home right here in Gregg County. Justice is being delayed, sometimes for years, as some in custody languish with untreated mental illness because they are incompetent to stand trial and not receiving treatment.

These inmates cannot, and should not, be released. In several local cases those judged incompetent have committed violent crimes and could do so again if set free.

Often, all it takes is assessment and the proper medication for a few months to restore a suspect's competence for trial. That is the best outcome. Then, if not guilty, he can be freed or, if convicted, receive a proper sentence.

There are many reasons such care is not being provided. Most obvious is that the state of Texas, which provides the services, is woefully short on resources. The number of maximum-security beds in state psychiatric hospitals is far less than needed.

According to a recent News-Journal report, the state has a total of 391 maximum-security beds with a wait time of nearly five months and a waiting list of almost 400 patients who have been charged with violent crimes.

When no treatment is available for those inmates, the justice system grinds to a halt on their cases.

It's worth noting that violent crime cases, which are most impacted, have victims, and their families also awaiting justice. As cases linger, it is surely a source of constant pain for those unable to put these crimes behind them.

The overriding cause of this problem is our society's continued lack of attention to mental illness. Certainly it is expensive to provide treatment, but we are discovering that failing to make it available also has costs, and they could be even higher. These delays are justice are just one example.

There are no inexpensive answers, but we need a solution to this problem. The best one would be for the state to respond with more resources, but the next legislative session is a long way off, and the trend in Austin is not toward spending time or dollars to meet such real needs.

Another avenue might be for a county - or a group of counties - to establish their own programs to assess and restore inmates to competency.

Such a solution is being considered in Gregg County, possibly using a pilot program in Lubbock County as a model. We imagine there will be some opposition to any such effort, which is likely to increase costs for county taxpayers. Unfortunately, that is a growing reality in a state whose Legislature continues to retreat from such responsibilities, effectively shifting costs to local governments.

What we cannot do is just sit and do nothing. A growing problem has been identified and must be addressed. We are pleased area officials and health care providers are working to do so.

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