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Smart Justice

September, 12 2018

Seventeen thousand people with mental illness are booked into the Dallas County Jail every year and, according to a study by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI), 40 percent return within a year of their release. Their study also found that 85 percent of 911 calls in certain parts of Dallas were directly related to mental health emergencies and that more than half of people with serious mental illness in the Dallas County Jail had been incarcerated for minor offenses, often because of a lack of access to adequate mental health treatment.

This revolving door of temporary fixes not only burdens Dallas first responders, but the entire justice system. In 2013, Dallas County spent over $47 million on housing, booking and treatment for people with mental illness. And with the number of mental health calls increasing year over year, that amount has continued to rise.

With the support of the W.W. Caruth, Jr. Foundation Fund at Communities Foundation of Texas, the MMHPI has engaged partners and stakeholders across Dallas County in a comprehensive planning process to identify and develop community-wide consensus on the strategies needed to improve public safety by diverting people with mental illness away from the Dallas County justice system and into the care they need. 

The primary objective of the project is to improve public safety by reducing the burden on Dallas law enforcement and the Dallas County Jail of having to respond to people who come into contact with the system for severe psychiatric needs but who are not a compelling public safety risk.

As Dallas Police Department (DPD) Assistant Chief Paul Stokes told Fox 4 News, “A lot of times when we dispatch an ambulance to deal with mental health calls, those aren’t quick and easy calls to resolve. We may have to be on scene for some time.”

Responders often haven’t been specially trained to deal with mental health emergencies. But, the City of Dallas has recently launched a program to help solve this issue.

The pilot program, called the Rapid Integrated Group Healthcare Team Care (or RIGHT Care for short), is a collaboration between Parkland Health & Hospital System, MMHPI, DPD and the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department. When a mental health 911 call is placed, a RIGHT Care response team will be dispatched to evaluate the situation.

This team of professionals will consist of a trained police officer, a trained paramedic and a behavioral health specialist from Parkland Hospital. Additionally, a Parkland mental health clinician also will be stationed in the 911 call center to monitor calls and assist Dallas officers citywide.

Celeste Johnson, Parkland’s vice president of nursing services, behavioral health, said the program has already shown positive results. During the beta testing phase, the number of patients in emergency room care for mental health problems was reduced. Instead, the majority of clients were taken to outpatient health centers to get the help they needed.

Together, these organizations are working to ensure that individuals with mental health needs get treatment rather than enter the justice system, thus empowering people with mental illness to have greater opportunity to live productive lives in our community.

As the report notes, “Undiagnosed mental illness can lead sufferers down a dangerous path to criminal activity. Convenient access to mental health professionals can help those at risk avoid our jails.”

Among the findings included:

  • 50% of prison and jail inmates in the United States have been diagnosed with a behavioral disorder.

  • Individuals with untreated mental health and substance use disorders are 8 times more likely to be incarcerated, often due to lack of access to appropriate crisis services and ongoing care.

  • 17% of adults entering jails and state prisons have a serious mental health illness.
  • 34% of Texas inmates have a mental health need and most have substance use disorders.

To learn more, visit 

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