TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — 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 said. “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.”
The county is looking at building a mental health diversion center to provide treatment to people experiencing a mental health crisis instead of booking them into jail. Brown has been traveling around the country looking at existing models in places like Nashville, Miami-Dade and Harris County.
“My sense is it’s maybe a combination of all the ones we’ve seen to make something that is both outside of the criminal justice system but effective in giving people the stabilization treatment they need and then helping them get into supportive housing,” Brown 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 right now.
“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.
Brown said funding for the physical building and the operation of it will likely be different, but the county is looking at federal grants, state funding and coordination with the City of Austin. The body could also ask voters to help fund the project.
The specifics of the cost of the building and operation are not yet decided.
The problem: By the numbers
Brown said there are roughly 800 more people in the county’s jail now than there were pre-pandemic. On any given day prior to COVID-19, there were roughly 1,400 people housed in the jail. Today, there are closer to 2,200, he said.
To add, the number of people with a mental health designation by the state’s measurements has more than doubled: From 21% pre-pandemic to 45%, according to Brown.