2017 Dallas RIGHT Program: Mentally Ill Avoid Bail and Jail
Mental illness often leads to arrest here in Dallas and North Texas. All too often, people suffering from any number of psychological issues find themselves behind bars of local state and county jails.
Frequently they remain in jail, and without treatment, because they are unable to make bail. This isn’t news. It’s a problem that Texas has failed to solve for many years now. See:
- “Let’s Stop Treating Mental Illness Like It’s a Crime in Texas,” written by Octavio Martinez Jr. and Lynda Frost, published on January 22, 2016, by the University of Texas Press; and
- “How Texas Jails Have Become De Facto Mental Health Facilities — And Why They’re Failing,” written by Meagan Flynn and published on July 31, 2015, in the Houston Press.
Sure, some of these folk are violent and a danger to themselves or others. However, many of our local jails have inmates with mental health issues who are not violent and not dangerous. What about them? Can’t we find a way to get these folk some help – and get them released? Maybe.
The Dallas County Jail Population: Higher Than Average
Here in Dallas County, you get arrested and you get taken down to the county jail. In Fort Worth, you go to the Tarrant County Jail. You stay there. That is, unless you get your freedom because your attorney gets the charges are dropped or you make bail.
We know from the Dallas Observer that (1) Dallas County puts more people behind bars that the national average; and (2) more people get arrested in Dallas than in other major Texas cities. These are statistics for all jail inmates, regardless of mental illness.
From the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, we know there’s a big bail problem: over 75% of the Tarrant County Jail inmates during February 2016 were awaiting trial because they couldn’t make bail. In Dallas’ numbers, the TCJS statistics showed a similar fate: over 70% of Dallas County inmates could not make bail, so they sat behind bars without any conviction.
For more on how bail works here in North Texas on both state and federal charges, read our past posts including:
- Bail In Texas: What’s All This About Bail Reform? Can You Get Out Of Jail?
- Out on Bail: Pre-Trial Conditions in Dallas, Fort Worth, and North Texas
- How To Get Out of Jail on a Federal Charge: Federal Arrest, Bail, and PreTrial Detention.
2017: Dallas County Implements the RIGHT Program
This year, Dallas County will institute a new approach for law enforcement in dealing with mentally ill individuals who may or may not have committed a crime. It is a joint effort between Dallas Fire-Rescue and the City of Dallas Police Department.
The money is coming from private grants. The program involves creating “Rapid Integrated Group Healthcare Teams, called “RIGHT Teams.” These teams will have police officers as well as Dallas Fire-Rescue paramedics working together. At the 911 call center, a mental health care professional will be a team member, too.
The mental health practitioner will assess incoming 911 calls from a mental illness perspective. Sometimes, the police will respond – sometimes, they won’t.
If the police do take the call and end up arresting someone, they are going to go down to the Dallas County Jail. Under this new RIGHT Program, they will be screened at the jail for psychological issues.
The test results are supposed to be sent to the judge for consideration at their bail hearing.
Bail Hearings in 2017: The Mental Health Component
The Right Program will be a factor in Dallas County bail hearings. Some things remain the same: defense lawyers will argue for no bail, or low bail, because of weaknesses in the charges brought against the defendant, as well as their financial condition and ability to meet a large bail.
However, with the new psychological assessments by the RIGHT Program, bail hearings will be addressing things like the defendant’s psychological condition, his or her history of mental illness, and their risk of harming themselves or others upon release.
The prosecutor will argue a risk factor based upon a new “risk assessment” of the individual under the new program. The defense can counter these arguments with mental illness arguments that mitigate the state’s assessment.
Dallas County Jail is 2nd Largest Mental Health Facility in Texas
According to the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office, the Dallas County Jail (Lew Sterrett Justice Center), is the second largest mental health facility in the State of Texas. The Harris County Jail is number one.
This summer, Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez was all in favor of the new RIGHT Program. From law enforcement’s perspective, this program will help the Sheriff’s Department get back to doing its job of operating as a jailer, period.
The Social Stigma of Mental Illness
For some defendants, being assessed and labelled as having mental illness may be insulting – they may even think serving some jail time would be better than having a label of being mentally ill.
However, the new RIGHT Program isn’t a voluntary alternative for those arrested by police. If you are booked and facing a bail hearing in Dallas County, then you are going to deal with the prosecutor and his or her risk assessment.
There are also things in the works here in Dallas to try and lessen that social stigma. The new Okay to Say website is a part of that endeavor.
It’s part of a campaign launched by the local Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. This is the organization that has funded the $7,000,000 for implementation of the RIGHT program.
The Trauma of Being Arrested; Remembering Sandra Bland
Criminal defense lawyers are well aware that their clients are dealing with life-altering events as they face prosecution for allegedly committing a crime. It’s a huge earthquake in their life, and the lives of their loved ones.
It’s expected that anyone who has been arrested – particularly if it’s their first time, or if it is on a serious felony charge – will be emotional, even traumatized by the experience.
Whether or not that defense client suffers from a mental illness is another consideration. That’s something for a mental health provider to assess and determine. Therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, will need to form opinions and make diagnoses.
And they may not agree – experts have differing opinions all the time.
Mental illness, its type and severity, or the lack thereof, may be argued more often now by Dallas defense lawyers.
One thing is clear. Having local law enforcement more aware and concerned about keeping those who suffer from psychological issues out of jail and getting needed treatment is a good thing. The RIGHT Program should help people.
And we can only hope that in some way, these efforts work to honor the tragic death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail last year. May she rest in peace.
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