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Harris County Summit: Pretrial and Mental Health Solutions

| January 8, 2015

In December of 2014 professionals from across the board gathered in Harris County to discuss and answer questions about two pressing issues the criminal justice system is facing: pretrial release decisions and mental health. Assembled by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, they called for greater investment in risk assessments that make smarter decisions about pretrial release, and a “humane alternative” for mental health through collaboration.

Marc Levin began and moderated the discussion by noting the challenge that these issues present, and the success that Harris County is already seeing due to some of its initiatives. Crime has decreased, but he argues that if we want to lower it further and increase safety and well being, we need to identify areas of inefficiency and focus there. Levin then introduced the first speaker, David LaBahn, from the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

Admitting that his organization mainly works with larger offices, LaBahn acknowledged the time and resources necessary to take on these issues and find solutions. He urged both sides of the aisle to review and evaluate what has been done in these areas with an idea toward improvement. Having chosen Harris County as a pilot for the Smart Prosecution Project with his organization, LaBahn spoke about the potential in new reforms. Shifting focus from pretrial motions to pretrial releases through the use of risk assessments is one of these reforms, he argued. Following that up, needs assessments are pertinent to ensuring that you have the right people for the right reasons.

LaBahn closed with an anecdote that demonstrated the complex situation with medical expenses in the criminal justice system. The numbers show that reform for mental health is necessary, but they need a human reasonable alternative for this to be reached. In his opinion, jails and custodial facilities are not the place to have medical treatment.

Pretrial Panel

The morning panel consisted of Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, Matt Alsdorf from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, Tara Boh Klute from the Kentucky Pretrial Program, Judge Ryan Patrick and District Attorney Devon Anderson. They were gathered to discuss the current situation in pretrial, as well as ongoing and potential reforms.

Sheriff Garcia began by stressing the importance of this dialogue and its effect on public safety. Having already decreased the Harris County jail population by over a thousand, he agreed that continued successes would have to be achieved by refining and improving inefficiencies. Risk assessment and bonding schedules are clearly helpful tools that he argues will help bring this about. The Earned Early Release Credit is currently being applied to low-risk inmates, and has proven to be a success. Overall, he urged new methods that put former inmates on a trajectory to a more productive direction. This would result in fewer victims and expended resources.

Matt Alsdorf, the Director of the Criminal Justice Programs at the Arnold Foundation, followed Sheriff Garcia. He echoed the calls for risk assessments, and detailed a pretrial risk assessment that he and his organization had pioneered, that addresses the current conflicts being had with others. Tara Boh Klute provided information as well, on the pretrial programs that she and others have instituted in Kentucky. The lowered costs and supervision necessary bodes well for such reforms in Houston.

Judge Ryan Patrick and District Attorney Devon Anderson provided different outlooks. Judge Patrick brought out that while crime is down in Harris County, dockets are still overcrowded. A new court in Harris County could go a long way to addressing the backlog and allowing new methods to be instituted. DA Anderson remarked on the program currently being used for low risk marijuana offenders that involves less expense and has been a resounding success. Her objective is to keep from creating “classes of people who are sucked into the criminal justice system [forever].”
Mental Health Panel

In the afternoon a panel that included involved parties and stakeholders discussed mental health. Michael Dirden, the Executive Assistant to the Chief of Police, Dr. Teresa May, the Director of the Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department, Clarissa Stephens Deputy Director, Harris County Office of Criminal Justice Coordination, Dr. Andy Keller, from the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, all gathered to find solutions.

Dirden began by stating the problem; lack of capacity. Without room or alternatives in which to place those with mental illness, all the training in the world won’t be helpful. Dr. May helped put that in context, by discussing the revolving door that this created, wasting resources. She urged the use of risk assessments for the mentally ill in order to best place them.

Stephens highlighted the difficulty that exists in agency education when the system is as vast and varied as Harris County. Dr. Keller agreed and argued that the real hang-up in taking programs to scale in the county is the individualized attitudes among agencies

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Judge Oscar Hale and Senator John Whitmire added to the discussion by touching on several other topics. Hale brought out the drug court education in schools program that he is involved in, and the revolving door that makes this necessary. But the drug courts that he and others are now involved in have really been making a difference. Whitmire echoed Keller by advocating interagency communication and collaboration. He emphasized that simply sending someone to prison is the easy option, but that alternatively treatment will provide better results by closing down the revolving door.

The theme throughout the day was collaboration. Risk assessments are being developed in many different ways and can and should be a new component of the system. A system that has improved is to be praised, but a system that continues down that path is a beacon and example to other jurisdictions and even states.

In December of 2014 professionals from across the board gathered in Harris County to discuss and answer questions about two pressing issues the criminal justice system is facing: pretrial release decisions and mental health. Assembled by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, they called for greater investment in risk assessments that make smarter decisions about pretrial release, and a “humane alternative” for mental health through collaboration.

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RIGHT ON CRIME is a national campaign to promote successful, conservative solutions on American criminal justice policy—reforming the system to ensure public safety, shrink government, and save taxpayers money. By sharing research and policy ideas and mobilizing strong conservative voices, we work to raise awareness of the growing support for effective reforms within the conservative movement. We are transforming the debate on criminal justice in America.

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