Mental Health: Top Priority for Texas Sheriffs
By Laura Nicholes
TAC Legislative Staff
The Sheriffs Association of Texas (SAT) has declared “Funding for MHMR Community and State Hospital Mental Health Services” as its top legislative priority for the 83rd legislative session. The SAT Legislative Committee voted and formalized their legislative agenda on Dec. 13. “Mental health has long been recognized as one of the most difficult issues in our jails, one of the most costly to the county budget, and remains one of the most essential needs that sheriffs’ offices have and it belongs at the top of our legislative agenda. Jail is not the place for people with mental illness,” said Caldwell County Sheriff Daniel Law, president of the sheriffs association.
In a Jan. 16 legislative planning meeting, chaired by Brazos County Sheriff Chris Kirk, it was reiterated time and again among all sheriffs in attendance that mental health issues are a driving force in the criminal justice system and that appropriate training of law enforcement officers and jailers is critical. During discussions relating to the state budget, it was acknowledged that the State continues to collect, but is failing to disperse, law enforcement training funds** to county law enforcement agencies in the 2012-2013 budget and that such funds are absolutely necessary for training officers in areas such as mental health crisis and recognizing signs of mental distress in hopes of preventing tragedies.
Texas sheriffs intend to visit with legislators throughout the coming months and let them know how important it is to release those training funds (as well as 9-1-1 fees, auto theft task force funds and other monies) from their current role in balancing the state budget and return them to counties for their intended and necessary purposes.
“Support of local mental health authorities and the invaluable programs, expertise and maintenance of local control and access to services is a crucial piece of the puzzle,” said Limestone County Sheriff Dennis Wilson, a board member of the Texas Council of Community Centers.
Texas ranks at the bottom of the list in per capita mental health funding in the United States.
“There is an opportunity this legislative session for real discussions about mental health needs and which legislative initiatives can be most effective in curbing violence – an opportunity to address the underlying issues that attribute to violent or disruptive behaviors that impact not only what we do at the sheriff’s office and in the county budget, but more so, what realistic and meaningful steps the Legislature can and should take in addressing the issues that will best serve and protect our communities,” said Kirk.
**Law enforcement officer training funds are derived from a percentage of court costs collected by counties and distributed annually by the Comptroller’s Office to local law enforcement entities for training sworn law enforcement personnel.