Dallas County will use more than $4 million in its federal COVID-19 dollars to reduce the wait times for inmates to be admitted into state psychiatric hospitals.
Dallas County Commissioners approved a one-year contract on Tuesday with North Texas Behavioral Health Authority to reserve a hospital unit of 16 beds at a rate of $800 per day with administrative oversight.
County staff estimate a year of reserving these beds will help 113 inmates determined to be incompetent to stand trial. The contract promised the health authority up to $4.36 million of its $511 million in federal relief to respond to the pandemic. The federal government included behavioral health care as an approved allocation.
“I feel very optimistic about this,” Commissioner Elba Garcia said. “It’s doing something different- thinking out of the box, thinking how we can get more partners to do the right thing and help us to reduce the jail population.”
Hundreds of Dallas County jail inmates languish for months without a trial date, sometimes years, in the jail after having been determined to be incompetent to stand trial.
Some inmates are deemed by clinical experts to be incompetent to stand trial, meaning they are unable to understand the proceedings against them. To preserve the right of due process, courts have determined that efforts to restore competency to these inmates must be made before a trial can proceed. The state is charged with restoring competency to these inmates at state facilities.
At the end of November, the county reported 366 inmates who were waiting for state psychiatric beds. Of those, 233 inmates are determined to not need maximum security supervision and 133 inmates do. The North Texas Behavioral Health Authority’s beds will be for people who are determined to not need maximum security.
The North Texas Behavioral Health Authority’s Director of External Affairs Sabrina Conner said staff are pleased that the county is providing funds to help get appropriate individuals to a non-jail setting for competency restoration as quickly as possible.
Dallas County has been waiting for state action, because inmates should be transferred to their custody once deemed incompetent to stand trial. Last month, Dallas County sent a letter to the state asking to help address these wait times, and commissioners discussed suing the state over what they determined to be inadequate help.
The commissioners wrote that county jails are “ill-equipped to function as mental health hospitals.” The Nov. 1 letter then goes on to say the wait times infringe on the federal and state guaranteed right to a speedy trial.
“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.
In July, the county’s average wait time for a state psychiatric hospital bed was longer than that of any of the other top five counties in Texas.
Some Dallas County inmates wait more than 800 days for hospital admittance, according to state data. The average wait time for those facing nonviolent charges was 160 days; 330 days for those facing violent charges.
The jail is nearing capacity – toppling over 85% full as of Dec. 9. Commissioners say these wait times are a contributing factor.
Dallas County wants the state to help pick up the expenses these inmates cost the county, when they should be in state care. In September, 394 inmates determined to be mentally incompetent cost the county about $5.55 million in medications, food and care.
The county plans to curb the revolving door between the state hospital and jail through a close partnership with the health authority. Currently, 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. One inmate was caught in the cycle for more than five years, still waiting on a trial.
“Who’s gonna be in charge of making sure once they’re restored to competency that those individuals get to court immediately,” Commissioner John Wiley Price said.
Assistant County Administrator Charles Reed told commissioners the contract included a coordinator position to close gaps between gaining competency restoration at the hospital and setting a trial date.