Editor’s Note: In the above video, we referenced the inmate population at the downtown jail. The number we used, more than 2,200, includes the inmates at the Del Valle location, though inmates are processed through Central Booking downtown.

TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Travis County Commissioners could vote to move forward with recommendations from a forensic mental health project conducted by Dell Medical School next week.

The project report — which was released last week — identified five “high priority” recommendations made at the end of the 10-month project, which looked at people in Travis County’s jail with mental health and substance use disorders. The recommendations were:

  • Make data sharing easier and update the county’s “technology platform”
  • Create a mental health diversion center
  • Pilot housing programs and establish permanent housing solutions
  • Increase the number of peer specialists where people would intersect with the mental health and criminal legal system
  • Reinstate the counsel at first appearance program

“These recommendations fill several critical gaps and remove existing barriers to optimal outcomes that, if implemented, will lead to a dramatic shift in how individuals with mental health disorders who intersect the criminal legal system are treated, while concurrently ensuring the safety of the person and the community,” the report said.

According to the report, there are roughly 900 people with a “mental health identifier” in the Travis County jail at any given time. In January of 2023, researchers identified 873 people in the jail with such.

Researchers also collected booking data from September of 2018 to September of 2022 and found at least 100 people who “typified people cycling in and out of jail” with a mental health flag. People in that pool each had at least 3 arrests. One had as many as 89, according to the report.

Of those people, 75% of arrests were for misdemeanors. Criminal trespassing charges accounted for 55% of the multiple arrests.

“Had alternative interventions been in place, many of these individuals might have received care for their mental health disorder in a therapeutic and less restrictive setting than jail,” the report said of the data.

Mental Health Diversion Center

The largest mental health facility in Travis County isn’t a hospital. According to County Judge Andy Brown, the largest mental health facility in our county is the jail.

“Which is unacceptable to me,” Brown told KXAN previously. “So we’re trying to follow models around the country that are doing a better job of identifying people that police bring in that really have a mental health need that is unmet.”

Brown and other county leaders have been traveling around the country looking at existing mental health diversion models in places like Nashville, Miami-Dade and Harris County.

The Dell Medical report also recommended the county create a mental health diversion center, where people who have a mental health or substance use disorders could get treatment and services instead of sitting in jail.

The report estimated between 60 and 136 people might be eligible for diversion every month and recommended the facility have anywhere from 32-70 beds. To project for population growth over the next decade, it recommended there should be 40-88 beds moving forward.

Students at the LBJ School of Public Affairs created a calculator to estimate how much the facility would cost, according to the report. To build a 32-bed diversion center at just over 30,000 square feet, it would cost the county roughly $30 million to create the facility, and roughly $5 million a year to operate.

But the report shows the county could actually save money overall by keeping people out of jail.

Looking at the Miami-Dade as an example, the report found that while its diversion center is still being built, crisis intervention teams were able to divert enough arrests that they have closed one of their jails, “saving roughly $12 million annually in taxpayer dollars.”

Between 2010-2018, the CIT team helped decrease the jail population by nearly 40%, the report said.

“They estimate this resulted in roughly 109,704 fewer inmate jail days annually which is a cost avoidance of $29 million per year. In contrast, they expect their diversion center (when opened) to operate at roughly $25 million per year, which will include a scope of services not currently recommended for Travis County, including long term supportive housing,” the report said.

The effort could not only help with the growing population at the local jail, but could help with the long waitlist at the state hospital that is used to restore competency for people who are involved in the criminal system.

According to the Executive Director of the Texas Judicial Commission on Mental Health, there are roughly 2,500 people on that waitlist.

“I think we can all agree that that is not a sustainable number. It ends up looking like two years of waiting time for those with the more serious offenses,” Kristi Taylor, the executive director of that commission said in KXAN’s previous reporting on this topic.