Mental health diversion center to progress in Austin

The Travis County Commissioners Court unanimously agreed to begin planning for the implementation of a mental health and substance use diversion center March 21 during a Commissioners Court meeting.

The proposed facility would divert those accused of lower-level crimes to mental health treatment instead of jail. A diversion center would provide an individual with enough time and resources to gain stability and re-enter the community, County Judge Andy Brown said.

County staff will begin searching for funding and a location for the diversion center. The facility could cost up to $56 million to build.

How we got here

The vote comes after recommendations made by Dell Medical School at The University of Texas and the Mental Health Steering Committee on the mental health needs of Travis County.

In May 2022, the Travis County Commissioners Court partnered with Dell Medical School for the Travis County Forensic Mental Health Project. The 10-month consultation aimed to find solutions for those in Travis County jails who need care for mental health or substance use issues.

The steering committee was created as part of the effort, consisting of stakeholders such as Austin Police Department Chief Joseph Chacon and Steve Strakowski of Dell Medical School. The diversion center was one of five top priority recommendations made by the committee.

“As law enforcement, our capacity to really affect [mental health] has been affected by our inability to do anything other than to take people to jail,” Chacon said March 21. “We know we’re not going to arrest our way out of these issues, that it has been the Band-Aid we’ve been putting on, and we need a much bolder move to really effect change.”

The final report for the Forensic Mental Health Project found mental health needs in the community have moved into the hands of the legal system with factors such as increasing population and homelessness increasing the likelihood of a person experiencing a mental health crisis to end up in jail rather than in clinical care.

The recommended facility should include clinical evaluation, psychiatric and medical treatment, legal support, and capabilities for placement back into the community, according to the report.

“A diversion center is important and needed, but it’s not the only part of the solution for men and women with mental health needs,” Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez said. “To work effectively, it has to function as a place to manage a crisis and then relatively quickly place people back in our community with housing as well as mental and social support to help them from coming back.”

A range of 32 to 70 beds have been recommended, with a stay of about two weeks. Operating costs would be $2.5 million-$35 million, the report said.

“I understand that these are very costly items,” County Attorney Delia Garza said. “But the return we would get [is] a safer community, people getting the help that they need and not just sending people to jail because we have nowhere else for them to go.”

What’s next

Details such as the size of the diversion center and the services provided there are still in progress. Within 120 days, details such as bed numbers and eligibility for the center will be proposed. Funding options will be reported within 180 days, according to Brown.

On March 23, a work session of the Travis County Commissioners Court will receive and discuss the full report from the Mental Health Steering Committee. Further recommendations made by the committee in the report will be considered by the commissioner’s court.

“This is not the answer to all our mental health struggles in Travis County; there’s many yet unmet needs,” said Precinct 3 county commissioner Ann Howard. “This is laser focused on a population that’s really cycling in and out of [the] street, hospital and jail. And that’s expensive to their lives. It’s also expensive to our taxpayers.”


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