County wants mental health coordinator for jail

Jerrie Whiteley
Herald Democrat
From left to right, Grayson County District Attorney Brett Smith, Justice of the Peace Rita Noel, Judge Larry Phillips, Sheriff Tom Watt and Judge James Henderson appeared before commissioners Tuesday to seek approval of a grant submission for a mental health coordinator.

Commissioners approve grant application to start the process

There is a person in the Grayson County Jail right now who has been waiting for 221 days to get a bed at a state hospital on a competency issue. And that is the not the only person there awaiting such mental health treatment.

As a means of addressing the problem, Grayson County has decided to apply for a grant for the state's Community Diversion Coordinator pilot program.

The two counties that get the grant are going to get up to $171,000 for two years to hire a coordinator and pay for the program. Then the funding will step down by 20 percent for two more years. 

If the county is awarded the grant, those four years should give county leaders plenty of data to study to see if the program is worthy of continuing once the county would have to shoulder the cost of the program.

Justice of the Peace Rita Noel brought the grant opportunity to the rest of the judges in the county, and they agreed it was the type of program that is needed right now in the county. 

59th State District Judge Larry Phillips said if the county is lucky enough to be one of two counties to get the pilot program, the grant could fund a position that would help "keep those that have mental health or cognitive disabilities from just sitting in the jai and not getting treatment or getting processed." 

But, no one is talking about being soft on crime. They are simply trying to make sure that the people who are locked up are not in the throes of a mental health disorder, Phillips said.

"There's not anything that any of us (standing here) are going to do to jeopardize the safety of our citizens," he said. "We live here. Our families live here. Our grandkids live here."

From left to right, Grayson County Justice of the Peace Rita Noel, Judge Larry Phillips and Sheriff Tom Watt talk to commissioners, including Jeff Whitmire, shown, about a mental health coordinator grant opportunity for which the county can compete.

To track those people in the jail who need that kind of service and to be responsible for helping to move them along in the process whether that means finding a bed quicker or helping to get medication and other treatment to help stabilized individuals while still in the county jail, would help in the court process. A coordinator might also mean that they can divert some of those people away from the jail as they come into contact with law enforcement in the first place that could be a better option in the pursuit of justice.

Grayson County Judge Bill Magers, who said the grant request has support from mental health providers, TCC, adult probation, and others in the community, agrees now is probably the time for such a program, but he is concerned about adding another full-time position to the county's payroll.

Grayson County Commissioner Bart Lawrence looks on as state District Judge Larry Phillips, at podium, talks about a grant application for a mental health coordinator position Tuesday. Standing with Phillips from left to right are Grayson County District Attorney Brett Smith, Justice of the Peace Rita Noel, Sheriff Tom Watt and Judge James Henderson.

"There are issues that we have not resolved, like where they would be housed, whether it would be in the jail (or some other place)" he said.

But those issues could be worked out should the county get the grant. Other commissioners agreed and approved the application for the grant.

But Phillips went further saying thinks the time has come the position regardless of grant. 

He thinks the community has come together and tried to work on the problems faced by the criminal justice system and the mental health providers in the area but there a piece lacking that could help to bring it all together. 

"It's a shame to think that somebody is sitting in there (in jail) longer than their actual sentence would be just because of the back long (for competency treatment). That's not justice," he said.

The fact that is what is happening across the state is the reason for the grant opportunity. 

"What we can do better in this community, and something that we haven't done because we haven't had the manpower, is to provide an opportunity for some of these individuals to be not in the criminal court, but in what we call the probate court or mental health court," he said. "The opportunity to have mental health commitment where they have orders saying 'You have to go take medicine. You have to go to (your court ordered therapy) and if you don't there could be consequences. We could pick up and take you and make you do that. The more they taking their medication, the less it is going to happen.'"

The goal is to save the cost of housing those who don't need to be in jail and to protect family members and the community from those who need mental health intervention before it becomes a criminal justice issue. 

"There are issues that we have not resolved, like where they would be housed, whether it would be in the jail (or some other place)" he said. But those issues could be worked out should the county get the grant. 

"I gotta watch the numbers," Magers said. He said he didn't think anyone would object to going along with the grant should the county be lucky enough to win it. But, he said, it would be a major budget issue going forward after the four years or going forward without the grant because there are costs associated like the salary and benefits for the full-time employee and the costs associated with housing those in the program verses the costs of housing them in the jail.

"If we don't get the grant, we are back to square one," he said.