By Landan Kuhlmann
Newly elected Fort Bend Precinct 4 County Commissioner Ken DeMerchant may be new on the leadership scene, but he is wasting no time trying to make his mark in Fort Bend County.
State representative Ron Reynolds – whose District 27 represents portions of Sugar Land, Missouri City, Meadows Place and more – recently filed House Bill 3620 with the Texas House of Representatives in conjunction with DeMerchant, whose precinct encompasses Missouri City, Stafford and Sugar Land. If passed, the legislation would create a Mental Health Treatment for Incarceration Diversion pilot program for Fort Bend County.
According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five adults in the U.S. – almost 47 million in 2017 – suffer from a form of mental illness, which can vary in degree of severity ranging from mild to moderate to severe. Approximately 20 percent of inmates housed at the Fort Bend County Jail are incarcerated due to mental health issues.
For DeMerchant, who formulated the beginnings of a plan to address mental health when touring the jail shortly after he was elected last year, such a volume is unacceptable.
“I’m an engineer, and I just thought there had to be a better way to do this,” he said.
DeMerchant then sought out consultation from Texana – a Fort Bend-based nonprofit that provides services to people with behavioral health issues and intellectual and developmental disabilities – and Dr. Connie Almeida, Fort Bend County’s Director of Behavioral Health Services. DeMerchant’s pilot program will seek to provide immediate assistance through crisis treatment intervention and subsequent residential assistance to those who need it most.
“What came out of that was that we not only needed to get them out of the system, but the earlier we get them out of there, the better,” DeMerchant said. “The longer they’re there, the more expensive they are for the county. Everything adds up the longer they’re in the system.”
According to a report from Community Impact Newspaper, it costs about $125 per day for Fort Bend County to house an inmate who has mental health issues, compared to $80 a day for an inmate who does not. Additionally, Almeida said in general, people with mental illness remain in jail three times longer than those without.
“Fort Bend County has worked collaboratively to develop a system to identify and divert people with mental illness who commit nonviolent crimes from incarceration,” she said. “…. We recognize getting the right care to individuals with mental illness at the right time is critical to their recovery. Reducing gaps in access to physical and behavioral health care, food, housing, jobs, and community support is essential to reducing recidivism and supporting recovery.”
The pilot program would seek more effective jail diversion in several ways, including free booking and creating avenues of avoiding booking altogether.
Currently, deputies at the jail handle mental health screenings. HB 3620 would put a Texana representative on-site to handle the screenings.
“We can take it out of the deputies’ hands and put it into the hands of somebody who knows and can identify these people at booking,” DeMerchant said. “Then, we wouldn’t even book them – we’d divert them off into a facility to receive the treatment they need.”
A second prong would use technology to aim to reach people before they even reach the jail. The Fort Bend County Sheriff’s crime intervention team would be provided a tablet or similar device, then have whoever they pick up converse with a Texana representative to immediately identify if someone needs treatment. If so, deputies would transport them directly to Texana to avoid booking.
“Currently, the treatment and helpful options for persons who suffer mental illness are few once the cycling begins through the incarceration system,” Reynolds said in a news release. “This will provide these individuals an opportunity to gain footing and life skills so they can re-enter society as productive citizens, provide relief to jail overcrowding and help the mentally ill get much-needed services.”
In addition to Texana, DeMerchant’s initiative has received support from the Fort Bend Clubhouse – where adults with mental illnesses can receive rehabilitation – District Attorney Brian Middleton and the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office.
According to DeMerchant, the bill has made it out of the House Committee on Corrections – where it was held to public scrutiny last Friday morning – and onto the floor of the Texas House.
“It’s been great to see that everyone can come together to help fill in the gaps and solve these problems that we have,” he said.