Texas lawmakers set aside more than a billion dollars in funding and turned their attention to programs intended to help mentally impaired and substance-abuse offenders during the legislative session that ended in May.Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said the budget increases for the next two years for mental health spending came after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 children and six adults dead.While legislators continued to fight over gun control, they conceeded a need to do more to identify and treat the mentally impaired.“What we did is so little compared to what we needed that no one has the right to praise this progress,” Burnam said. “Historically we’ve been absolutely miserly on mental health spending. But part of this is because of a lack of civil engagement. The only people who spend time on mental health issues are family members who have relatives who are affected.”Lawmakers agreed to put $1.77 billion into mental health care, an increase of $259 million over the previous biennial budget. The allocations included an additional $57 million to eliminate waiting lists for mental health services for children and adults. An additional $25 million was set aside to finance grants to local mental health authorities and crisis programs. Roughly $10 million more will go to substance-abuse treatment.From 2006 to 2009, Texas ranked last in the nation in per-capita spending on mental health services, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. In fiscal 2010, Texas spent $39 per capita, moving up a couple of spots. In comparison, Maine, near the top of the list, spent more than $300 per capita.Legislators also called for a review of the use of administrative segregation, or solitary confinement, in adult and juvenile facilities, addressing a long-ignored need for data. An independent third party will make recommendations designed to reduce the number of offenders and the time they spend in seclusion while diverting offenders with mental impairments to more appropriate community settings.The review will cost about $128,000, but the funding is expected to come from grants, gifts and donations, and is not anticipated to affect the state budget significantly. Lin Morrisett, a Tarrant County associate probate judge, said getting reliable data for offenders with mental illnesses makes a difficult situation harder to navigate. Morrisett said his court, which spends the bulk of its time on mental health issues, has recorded a nearly fivefold increase in the number of cases on its docket in the past 14 years. “We know the system is getting worse,” Morrisett said. “Since 2003, our docket has increased about 13 percent a year every year.”The big problem with not having readily accessible data on offenders is that too many decisions are based on educated guesses, Morrisett said.“We need to have good, hard data so we can trace over a long time frame what is happening to these patients,” Morrisett said. “What I suspect we’d find out is that some of these medications we are using are not worth a damn, and perhaps some are counterproductive.” Cindy Eigler, a representative with Texas Impact, an interfaith group that advocates for better inmate treatment, said about 5 percent of Texas inmates spend time in solitary confinement, whereas the national average is between 1 and 2 percent. About a third of those assigned to solitary suffer from serious mental illness, Eigler said. “Ninety-five percent of this population will come back to the community,” Eigler said. “I think how they are treated in prison matters.”Timothy Raines might have benefited from the recently passed legislation had it been law two decades ago, said Elizabeth Valderas, his guardian. Raines, 45, is accused of stealing a forklift and leading Fort Worth police on a low-speed vehicle chase along University Drive and Interstate 30.He spent 18 months in administrative segregation in prison in 1998, according to Valderas, then went to prison after his probation was revoked on a 1995 aggravated assault charge out of Dallas County.Raines, who suffers from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, came out of prison worse than he went in, said Valderas, chairwoman of the Legislative Advocacy Committee for the National Association of Mental Illness in Tarrant County.He served two more prison stints before being charged with aggravated assault on a public servant, evading arrest and detention, theft and driving while intoxicated in the stolen forklift incident, Tarrant County district clerk records show. If convicted, Raines faces a 99-year prison sentence.“They are committing our schizophrenic and bipolar offenders to long-term confinement where there is no treatment,” Valderas said. “We’re holding people accountable when they do not have the capacity to determine the rightness or the wrongness of their actions.”Brent Carr, a Tarrant County district judge who presides over the mental health diversion court, said Tarrant County residents cannot rely on state and federal governments to solve these issues locally. “Tarrant County has always benefited from the willingness of those interested in this area to meet and develop solutions,” he said. “As a local community we realize we have some problems to work on, and we will do what we can to solve those problems.” This report includes material from The Texas Tribune.
Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752 Twitter: @mitchmitchel3