Dallas County commissioners are floating the idea of suing the state over the long wait times to get state psychiatric beds for mentally ill inmates.
Hundreds of inmates are languishing for months — or even years — in the jail after having been determined to be incompetent to stand trial, meaning they are unable to understand the proceedings against them. Courts have determined that to preserve the right of due process, efforts to restore competency to these inmates must be made before a trial can proceed. They should be transferred to state facilities for that to happen.
In a regularly scheduled commissioners court meeting on Tuesday, commissioners approved a letter to send to the state asking for help, but some felt that wasn’t enough. Commissioner John Wiley Price said he knows there is apprehension from others, but getting the state to act may require a lawsuit.
Commissioner Elba Garcia asked how likely private hospitals would be to jump in without state assistance to help alleviate the wait times for these offenders, insinuating that it was not likely.
Seeing one course of action as the most likely to force action, Price replied: “It’s called a lawsuit.”
“We have been asking, but asking is not getting the job done,” Commissioner Theresa Daniel said. “A lawsuit steps it up just a little bit.”
Garcia said a lawsuit would not necessarily solve the problem, and she wants action as soon as possible.
“I’m not against suing the state. I just know we are going to be there forever [waiting for state action] and nothing is going to be solved,” Garcia said.
A lawsuit against the state would require the approval of three of the five members to move forward.
Garcia referenced The Dallas Morning News’ coverage of one inmate who has been in the county jail for more than five years without a trial to explain her urgency.
“How can it be that one person can be five years in and out of the Dallas County jail and still not be competent to stand trial?” she said. “Those are the issues that are true injustices.”
In July, the county’s average wait time for a state psychiatric hospital bed was longer than that of any other urban county in Texas, with some waiting more than 800 days for hospital admittance, according to state data. The average wait time for those facing nonviolent charges was 160 days; for those facing violent charges it was 330 days.
The county blames the fact that the jail is near-capacity, in part due to these long wait times, in its letter to the state calling for funding or more beds.
As of Oct. 24, 6% of the jail population was on the waitlist for state facilities to restore their competency, the letter says.
“Because of these state responsibilities being pushed down to our county, our jail is nearing 90 percent capacity,” the commissioners’ letter says.
The commissioners wrote that the county jails are “ill-equipped to function as mental health hospitals.” The letter then goes on to say the wait times infringe on the guaranteed right to a speedy trial, in both federal and state constitutions.
“For these reasons, it is unjust for these individuals, who are potentially innocent, to be locked up in county jails for hundreds of days while not competent to stand trial,” the letter said.
The state’s Health and Human Services Commission did not respond to requests for comment on the letter, but previously told The News that state facilities do not have enough staff to admit as many people as they did before the pandemic, and that there are still capacity restrictions on the hospitals.
“HHSC claims that they cannot receive inmates due to an inability to hire adequate staff; however counties, who are struggling with the same workforce challenges, do not have the luxury to simply stop taking care of inmates,” the county letter says.
The costs to Dallas County taxpayers is unfair, Price said at the meeting.
In September, 394 inmates determined to be mentally incompetent cost the county about $5.55 million for medications, food and care. The county wants the state to help cover the costs if it won’t move these inmates sooner.
Dallas County has offered two recommendations for the state: Reimburse the county for finding its own partnerships to provide competency restoration, or contract with hospitals inside of the county to decrease travel time and the influx of patients to state hospitals.
Price said state funds had been sent to the border rather than alleviating mental health issues across the state. Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott said the state is pulling $359.6 million out of the state prison system’s budget to continue funding the Operation Lone Star border security operation for the next 10 months.
“You don’t mind spending money at the border. I don’t want Dallas County citizens to continue to have to [bear] this,” Price said.
Commissioner J.J Koch said state money will not fix this systemic problem that needs more resources, mental health providers and relationships.
“One of the things we are going to have to discuss here is that there probably is no amount of money that is going to get us what we need right now, because there’s not enough competent providers,” Koch said. “The systemic underfunding of our mental health capabilities has led to this, and we can never let it happen again.”
Daniel said the county has no other option but to bear the brunt of the cost.
The county is also planning to lobby the Legislature next year for tighter deadlines on turnaround times between the state hospital and trial. In some cases, like Eric Longoria’s, a person’s competency can be restored and they can be sent back to jail, where they can wait months for proceedings, then lapsing back into incompetency.
“Once we have competency, a trial has to take place immediately,” Garcia said.