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County's Mental Health Court launch delayed

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Hays County’s Mental Health Treatment Court has heard zero cases since its inception in late 2019. County officials cite COVID-19 and lack of funding for the delay in launching a docket. 

The commissioners court approved a resolution of support for the creation of a Mental Health Treatment Court on Dec. 10, 2019, but county records show that there is not a designated docket for the court yet.

“The short answer is, it does exist, the commissioners court created it under the statute,” said Hays County General Counsel Mark Kennedy, referring to Chapter 125 of the Texas Government Code which gives the commissioners court the authority to create a Mental Health Court for those who have been arrested or charged with a misdemeanor or felony and are suspected of having mental illness.

Mental health courts are usually a diversionary method to engage defendants who have mental illness with resources and treatment in lieu of incarceration. According to the program handbook, the Mental Health Court is a five-phase, voluntary program that requires a minimum 12 month commitment. Its intent is to provide a link between treatment, rehabilitation, social support services and the criminal justice system in order to achieve long-term stability and self sufficiency for the participant while protecting public safety and more effectively utilizing public resources.  

“Even though the commissioners court took that action, they have to do some things to get it functional,” Kennedy said. “Over the duration of last year, they tried to approach it from a policy standpoint, they have been doing research, finding out what other jurisdictions are doing. And they really need a dedicated coordinator to handle the dockets.”

A grant application for a mental health coordinator in early 2019 was intended to support both the Veterans Treatment Court and the Mental Health Treatment Court but was not approved. The Grants Administration Department will recommend applying for funding again once the next window opens for those sorts of funds.

Kennedy also said once the court has figured out how they are going to staff the office, there is a grant they can apply for through the governor’s office. 

In addition, the courts have not been holding live dockets and jury trials to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

Former Judge Tacie Zelhart, who wrote the Community Action Plan and worked with local mental health authorities to create the program for Hays County Court at Law No. 3, said they were hoping to start their first docket in March or April 2020 until COVID-19 hit. 

“We continued to refer individuals to treatment that needed treatment and prepared for the in person docket,” Zelhart said. “It’s a wonderful program, I hope the new judge continues it on. It’s needed. And we have a workgroup together to start working on trying to establish a mental health hospital.”

Newly elected Judge Sherri Tibbe for Hays County's 453rd District Court  said she plans to continue Zelhart’s work on the mental health treatment court.

Public commenters’ frustration about the slow development of the mental health treatment court can be heard at several commissioners court meetings throughout 2020, and many asking for a Public Defender Office. 

Local criminal justice reform organization Mano Amiga describes this as another empty promise from county officials following lengthy launches of other pledged policies such as Cite & Divert and text message court reminders. 

“In actuality, what’s greatly needed is a holistic Public Defender Office, embracing both civil and criminal cases, to adequately address the complex needs of those affected by mental health concerns –– not imaginary fixes,” said Eric Martinez, policy director of Mano Amiga.

Co-Chair of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Commission Commissioner Lon Shell ensures that the  docket is in the works.

“Though the commissioners court created the Hays County Mental Health Court last year, COVID-19 and other factors have delayed its implementation,” Shell said. “I look forward to working with the County Courts at Law to make sure we get a Mental Health Court and docket operational as soon as possible.”

San Marcos Record

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