Rowe meets with legislators in Austin

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By Brenda Brown

Cass County’s sheriff joined law enforcement and county officials from across Texas at the state capitol on Tuesday to seek relief regarding two issues that cost counties dearly.

Larry Rowe said last week he planned to join other members of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas and the Texas Association of Counties to meet with their respective representatives about funding for mental health issues and parole violators who are incarcerated in record numbers in county jails.

Rowe plans to meet with State Senator Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler), and State Representative Chris Paddie (R-Marshall).

"Our number one problem is mental health," Rowe said. "Texas ranks 50th among states in mental health funding and county jails have to take up the slack."

Rowe said Cass County deals with two to three people each week who are arrested because of mental and/or substance abuse issues. Even if the county can find a bed for them in a mental facility, the county must first pay for a mental health evaluation before the person can be transported for treatment.

The nearest treatment facilities are in Sherman, Terrell and Rusk, and Rowe said beds are in short supply.

The county spends a considerable amount of money annually for transport as two employees are needed to drive them to the hospital and to treatment facilities. Factor in the paperwork, which is considerable, and Rowe said the expense to the county becomes quite costly.

"And, we don’t get any reimbursement from the state," Rowe added. "It’s killing us on the money. We’re all on our own."

MHMR (mental health and mental retardation) issues affect both adults and juveniles – and there are even fewer juvenile facilities and resources.

Rowe said the Texas Association of Counties estimates at any given time 24 percent of county jail prisoners have mental illness issues and 44 percent of juveniles in state-run facilities have MHMR issues.

Greg Hansch of the National Association of Mental Illness, the nation’s largest nonprofit, grassroots mental health education, advocacy and support organization, testified on Feb. 1 before the Texas Senate that the state spent about $39 per capita on mental health services in 2010; the national average is $127.

"Recent tragic events like the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and College Station, Texas, have drawn an unprecedented level of public and media attention to the issue, but the need for greater state investment in the Texas mental health system is longstanding. The time is now for lawmakers to provide adequate funding for mental health services in Texas," Hansch said.

"Senate Bill 1 proposes to significantly reduce funding for community mental health services for adults and children.  Further reducing funding for these services is penny wise and pound foolish: when individuals living with mental illness are unable to access services in the community, they often end up in prisons, jails, and hospital emergency rooms," he said.

"According to the Department of State Health Services and the Legislative Budget Board, it costs 11 times more to treat an individual living with mental illness in the criminal justice system than it does to treat them in the community. Rather than continuing to settle for a costly, crisis-driven system, the state of Texas would be better served by addressing mental illness at the front end through community-based services."

Another drain on county finances is picking up state prison parole violators and then waiting for state parole officers and judges to take care of business.

Sheriffs across the state have long complained parole officials issue blue warrants to arrest offenders for "technical violations" when they have no intention of sending them back to prison.

Rowe said it’s a form of "jail therapy" for non-violent parolees – and the state doesn’t reimburse county jails for the cost of incarceration.

"The parole officers take their time coming to visit them in the county jail, and we have to hold them until some type of disposition is made," the sheriff said.

On Friday, Rowe noted the county jail was holding six parole violators. One has been in the county jail since Nov. 13, with the most recent prisoner picked up on Jan. 1.

Instead of keeping these violators, some sheriffs believe judges should offer them bail, which would transfer the cost to the parolee. County officials have also noted these parole violators are unable to work while they are undergoing "jail therapy."

Rowe said these non-violent offenders should not be confused with parolees who commit additional crimes.

While blue warrants may be issued for committing another crime or for those considered a danger to society, they may also be issued if the parolee doesn’t show up for scheduled meetings with the parole officer or fails a drug test.

The Texas Sheriffs’ Association has endorsed legislation to curtail jail overcrowding by allowing judges to issue bonds or request bail for blue warrant parolees.

Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a bill regarding that matter in 2007.

The Houston Chronicle reported last month an average of 2,286 state parole violators are housed in Texas jails, a policy that costs taxpayers statewide at least $42 million a year. "Harris County has the largest tab – estimated at $7.6 million. This year, Harris County has had from 900 to 1,250 parole violators in jail each month."

Cass County pays $35 per day, per prisoner to house inmates in Harrison County, and until last month paid $40 per day to place prisoners in Gregg County.

The cost to house them in the Cass County Jail is about $25 per day.

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