Statewide group praises local effort to help mentally ill instead of jailing them, calls for program led by DA to be example

A statewide group is commending a program, under the leadership of District Attorney Kim Ogg, for its “outstanding” results in keeping the community safer by helping mentally ill people instead of locking them up.

The Mental Health Jail Diversion Program has been so successful at efficiently using tax dollars and improving people’s lives that the Texas Association of Counties is honoring the effort with its 2022 County Best Practices Award.

In addition to the award, the association is calling on other counties to replicate the innovation in their communities.

Established in 2018, the program diverts mentally ill individuals suspected of low-level, nonviolent offenses to the Judge Ed Emmett Mental Health Diversion Center. Rather than being booked into the county jail and facing criminal charges for “nuisance” offenses such as trespassing, they are evaluated and receive “wraparound” services to address multiple needs stemming from mental illness.

“This award is proof that we are able to balance reform and public safety,” Ogg said. “It also has the benefit of being the right thing to do, and it saves taxpayers millions of dollars.”

For every $1 spent on diversion, Harris County saves $5.54 on criminal justice costs, a recent study determined. As of May, when the program was nominated for the award, over 5,200 diversions had been counted, helping to ease jail crowding. That total recently surpassed 6,000.

In addition to the District Attorney’s Office, stakeholders in the program include the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Houston Police Department, Harris County Judge’s Office, Commissioners Court and Criminal Justice Coordinating Council Mental Health Standing Committee.

“The program gets to the root of what is causing criminal behavior with a holistic approach to keep individuals out of the criminal justice system, not just today but forever. It also allows law enforcement to prioritize more serious, violent crime,” Ogg said.

The Texas Association of Counties’ County Best Practices Awards Program recognizes the efforts of county leaders in creating new, efficient and effective solutions to challenges facing local government. These solutions include innovative programs, increased delivery of services and superior achievements in all areas of county operations. Examples include financial and general management, public safety and corrections, health and human services, technology, community improvements and other county-related responsibilities.