It didn’t happen overnight.
But after years of work, homelessness declined significantly, inmates reoffended less often and inefficient criminal justice spending diminished in Bexar County, Texas, the home of San Antonio. The investment into the community’s mental health treatment system paid off, said Leon Evans, a creator and operator of the system, saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars over the past decade as the county developed what would become an envied model for diverting people with mental illness away from jails and into specialized treatment programs.
Speaking to several dozen state and local leaders in Baton Rouge on Monday, Evans said jailing people with mental illness or substance abuse problems is costly and cruel, and East Baton Rouge Parish leaders must develop their own plan to reverse the increasingly common practice of incarcerating such people.
“This is the right thing to do,” Evans said after the speech, which he made at a lunch put on by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. In addition to the cost savings, Evans said, “it’s the Golden Rule,” hitting a note tapped by other city-parish leaders, including Mayor-President Kip Holden, about an obligation to care for the needy.
Central to the mental health treatment system in San Antonio is its restoration center, a facility featuring a sobering unit, inpatient and outpatient psychiatric treatment rooms, a detoxification center and a methadone clinic. Part of Holden’s $350 million public safety tax proposal includes plans to build a restoration center.
“This is, and will be, one of the largest steps we can take to improve the life and plight of some of those who have been forgotten,” Holden said.
The restoration center would serve as a place where law enforcement officers could drop off nonviolent offenders who clearly are suffering from mental illness or substance abuse problems. Officers spend only about 15 minutes dropping off a person at the Bexar County facility, compared to the hours of wait times associated with jail bookings and ER visits.
“It is definitely something that’s needed,” Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. said of the proposed facility in East Baton Rouge Parish. “It affects us all.”
Dabadie said officers are often left with two choices after picking up someone dealing with untreated mental illness: either go to an emergency room or to the Parish Prison.
The challenges became increasingly difficult, Dabadie said, after the closure in April 2013 of the Earl K. Long Medical Center, which had a mental health emergency room that shared many similar components of Bexar County’s restoration center.
Once the hospital disappeared, so too did many officers’ major lifeline to prevent jailing people with mental illness.
In Bexar County, there are many avenues to treatment in addition to the restoration center.
For example, a homeless shelter across the street from the restoration center houses between 600 and 800 people a night, Evans said. There, visitors must agree to work eight hours a day learning a skill while receiving counseling and treatment, often from recovering alcohol and drug addicts. If not, visitors are sent to “the courtyard,” Evans said, where the goal is to guide the person into treatment and employment as soon as possible.
“These people sleep outside,” Evans said, referencing inhabitants of “the courtyard.”
“We don’t want it to be really nice. We want them to get help.”
The homeless center, A Haven for Hope, and the restoration center typically accept all visitors — walk-ins and law enforcement drop-offs are welcome equally. It’s a policy Evans said he will fight to keep as the popularity of both venues grows and he seeks funds to expand them.
Another important element to Bexar County’s program involves the diversion program operating at its county jail booking center. Any time someone is brought to the jail, the person is screened for mental illness and “dangerousness,” Evans said.
When someone isn’t deemed a threat to public safety, the screeners forward a request to a judge asking for the person to be conditionally released. Those with mental illness, if deemed not too dangerous, are diverted to various treatment programs, Evans said.
To fund the numerous practices, “we turn over every rock,” Evans said, which often involves seeking federal, state and other local funding sources. He estimated operating costs for the homeless center and the restoration center at slightly less than $10 million per year.
But for Bexar County, it’s worth it. Officials in East Baton Rouge Parish think it would be, too.
“You think they’re criminals,” Evans said, referencing a common viewpoint on people with mental illness and substance abuse booked into jails. “You don’t think they go there because there are no other alternatives.”
Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter, @_BenWallace.