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Hearing to review Texas county, city jail procedures

The July 2015 death of Sandra Bland while in Waller County custody rasied questions about the safety of people with mental health needs while in custody of law enforcement or corrections.
Callie Richmond
The Texas Tribune
The July 2015 death of Sandra Bland while in Waller County custody rasied questions about the safety of people with mental health needs while in custody of law enforcement or corrections.

The Texas Senate Committee on Criminal Justice will hold a hearing at 1:30 p.m. March 30 to hear testimony regarding conditions for people in official custody who need mental health services while detained or incarcerated. Katharine Ligon with the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin is among the many who will be watching the conversation resulting from tomorrow's event.

Mark Haslett: The wheels of government turn a lot more slowly than the 24-hour news cycle. Last July, Sandra Bland’s death while in Waller County custody sparked outrage and concern about the well-being of people with mental health problems in Texas jails. Eight months later, the state Senate Committee on Criminal Justice will hear testimony about how the current system works. It’s a necessary step before any change in policy – first, a review of the existing policies and procedures.

Katharine Ligon: Who provides oversight and who is accountable for insuring that individuals who might be experiencing suicide ideations or a mental illness are screened. And then there’s a process to insure that they’re getting the care and treatment they need while they’re there in the custody of the jail.

Haslett: Katharine Ligon is with The Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. There are a lot of groups, from think tanks to lobbyists that have their eye on corrections and criminal justice policy changes in Texas. It’s one of the few areas in today’s polarized political climate where bipartisan efforts have run smoothly, at least in some cases. Measures that seem to save money have been broadly supported. Matters related directly to policy for law enforcement and corrections officers have inspired more debate. As far as the current system goes, Ligon says that county jails are monitored at the state level.

 Ligon: There is the Commission on Jail Standards, which is a small commission here in Texas that provides oversight to the jails, whether its checking their fire alarms to their screening processes for health conditions, whether its diabetes or mental illness, to insuring that individuals are getting fed on a regular basis and things like that. Their bandwidth is pretty broad. There are not very individuals that work for this commission that are providing this oversight. They have just a handful of employees that provide this oversight to 244 county jails across the state of Texas, and then also respond when there is a crisis.

Haslett: But that agency just monitors county jails. Ligon says there’s no equivalent agency keeping an eye on city jails. Of course, the smallest communities rely on county sheriff’s officers for law enforcement. But those towns just big enough to have a municipal jail might be the ones hardest pressed to provide some services for inmates with mental health needs. Ligon says that resources – both financial and logistical – should   be among the topics discussed at tomorrow’s hearing.

Ligon: Particularly rural sheriffs are expressing concern that there is not enough state mental health hospitals to serve the population that is in need of those hospital beds, so there’s a group that’s facilitated under DSHS [Department of State Health Services] with various community stakeholders that’s looking at this issue. How do we insure that the people who are needing state hospital services are getting those services? But also for those who are not likely to be dangerous or seem to be appropriate to serve in the community, how do we insure that those individuals are able to receive community-based services during their trial process?

Haslett: Expect the conversations from tomorrow afternoon’s Senate Committee on Criminal Justice hearing to continue all the way through next year’s session of the state legislature.

Mark Haslett has served at KETR since 2013. Since then, the station's news operation has enjoyed an increase in listener engagement and audience metrics, as well recognition in the Texas AP Broadcasters awards.