An innovative mental health-focused jail diversion program is saving one county millions of dollars and garnering national attention. The Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD is the community behavioral health provider leading the charge.
“This is targeted toward those individuals that have a history of mental health issues [whose nonviolent] crimes somehow had a mental health component,” CEO Wayne Young told Behavioral Health Business. “A lot of the jail diversion activities are post-charge, but the leaders in our community really wanted to move towards a pre-charge diversion effort, … so they turned to us.”
Community behavioral health providers across the country are taking notice of the unique model, which is supported in part by state funds allocated by the county. Stakeholders in places like New York City and Dallas have reached out to Young in hopes of following suit in their respective locales — allured by the outcomes and cost savings the Harris Center program boasts.
Based in Houston, the Harris Center is the largest behavioral and developmental disability care center in Texas. With an annual operating budget of about $280 million, the Harris Center receives a mix of state, county and third-party funding, as well as various grant money. The nonprofit safety net provider has 86 care locations and serves more than 88,000 people per year, many of whom are under- or uninsured.
The mental health jail diversion program is a relatively new addition to the center. It was created in September 2018 out of necessity.
Harris County, which includes Houston, has one of the largest jails in the nation. And in 2016 alone, nearly 4,600 people were booked in for trespassing — but about 85% of those people had a mental health issue or were homeless. Faced with those statistics, the county’s judge, district attorney and sheriff agreed something needed to change, turning to the Harris Center for help.
“It was clear we had this kind of nexus of low-risk, nonviolent … people that were being charged because they had a mental health condition,” Young said.
Thus, the program was born. While Young’s organization is the lead agent for the initiative, the model’s strength lies largely in the fact that it is collaborative. Community entities — such as the county judge’s office, the district attorney’s office and various police departments, among others — share responsibilities and resources to make it possible.
“The big focus is: How can we help those individuals receive support and treatment, as opposed to being cycled through jail for a situation that really didn’t have a public safety element to it?” Young said.
Now, instead of jail, those people can go to the Judge Ed Emmett Mental Health Diversion Center. Or rather, officers can take them there.
“It’s open 24/7 and is only available to law enforcement to drop individuals off,” Young explained, noting that the facility will accept nearly all nonviolent offenders. The entire intake process only takes officers about 10 minutes, he said.
The location has the capacity to serve 41 people at a time and is staffed with an around-the-clock care team. The facility touts a variety of services, such as primary care, psychiatry, recovery coaching, peer support, employment help and housing assistance, among other offerings. Sheriff’s deputies provide security for the site.
While the program was originally only available to those picked up for trespassing, it has since been opened up to other nonviolent offenders. About 78% of those who go through the program are homeless, Young said, with the average length of stay coming it at about 53.8 hours.
“[In the past,] about 400 people per month who were booked into the jail had been a Harris Center client at some time,” Young said. “That number now has dropped on average below 100, so that also tells us we are getting the right people.”
While the organization still have the in-reach jail diversion options, this is where they’ve diverted most of their resources.
$9.2M in criminal justice savings
In the year and a half since the mental health diversion center first opened, it has yielded impressive results: Namely, nearly $10 million in cost savings to the criminal justice system in its first fiscal year alone.
“Looking at jail costs, DA costs, public defenders, court time and state hospital competency restoration, we estimate we saved the system about $9.2 million,” Young said.
That figure doesn’t include any cost savings association social services, health care or the broader economy. Nor does it mean the Harris Center is pocketing that money.
“We feel a sense of mission and duty and obligation to [do this],” Young said. “From a business perspective, the truth is, most of those savings aren’t savings for us.”
Still, Young is hopeful that could change in the future.
“We’re having a conversation now with the community about, is there some way we can take those savings and reinvest them back into more programs?” Young said. “Can we take these dollars and create another [additional] model program that might be accessible to those that need additional support and services?”
Young was adamant about the fact that the Harris Center couldn’t support the program alone. Additional funding and community collaboration has been essential, he said.
“The nice thing is there were state funds that were available to support these efforts,” Young said. “The county contracted with us using their state dollars and a local match to create the diversion center.”
He encourages other community providers to experiment with similar initiatives, with teamwork — and the additional funding that comes with it — being a key driver of success.
“The first step is probably to reach out and have a conversation with elected officials and community partners,” Young said. “I would also encourage providers to be bold. We’ve got some very significant challenges in the behavioral health system. I don’t think we’re going to solve those problems without thinking bigger and taking more aggressive, bold action than what we’ve done historically.”