D Magazine hosted a criminal justice talk at the HQ here in downtown Dallas recently, and various, fascinating pieces of the conversation revolved around the complex relationship between mental health issues and repeat offenders.
Ron Stretcher, former director of criminal justice administration at Dallas County, discussed a population that can get caught in a pattern of bouncing in and out of incarceration, without an end to the pattern in sight. “Nobody knows what to do,” he said of the justice system’s view on repeat offenders with behavioral health issues. “There are no options. Treatment in the community hasn’t worked, and they just keep cycling back.”
“That’s a group that can only be addressed by providing the right level of intensive services out in the community,” Stretcher says. He adds that there’s an important distinction to be made between those with mental illness who need treatment and those who require punishment.
Terri Burke, Texas director of the ACLU, stressed the importance of pre-detention interventions.
“Let me say in fairness to our counties, the State of Texas does not provide really any funding for mental health, so this burden does fall disproportionately on the counties, and that’s wrong,” Burke says. “We’ve got to get our state government to look at this differently. Our jails should not be our major mental health institutions in this state. We can do things early on, before trials, even before charges.”
A broad takeaway is that the mental health issues discussed in this context as being so closely tied to the overcrowding of our justice system are in fact problems that extend far outside the system. They are deeply complex problems that will take commitment throughout the community.
The whole recording is sprinkled with discussion of mental health and addiction, topics that will only continue to grow in importance here in North Texas and elsewhere. A recent report from the North Texas Community Health Collaborative showed that 16 North Texas counties combined for 1.1 million mental health visits in 2016, equating to an astonishing 3,200 a day. In Dallas County alone, the number was nearly 600 visits per day.
To listen to the entire podcast episode, head here. The above discussion starts with a question posed to Stretcher at around the 14-minute mark.