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Commissioner Cook: Alternatives to incarceration transform lives, save taxpayer dollars
Austin American-Statesman - 9/15/2020
Ideally it is best to assist persons with mental illness before they encounter law enforcement or the justice system.
A network of mental health and substance use providers support the health and well-being of Williamson County families through a coordinated effort. Alongside medical providers, law enforcement officers and court administrators, these partners work diligently to develop a comprehensive and collaborative system of care.
Unfortunately, there are times when someone's illness or substance use disorder creates a crisis, and it is necessary to call 911 to keep everyone safe.
In Williamson County, we can respond to these types of 911 calls from residents, schools and even our four precinct constable offices in a safe and responsible manner.
Since 2004, Williamson County's Mobile Outreach Team -- headed by Director Annie Burwell -- has provided treatment options to people in crises and diverted patients away from jail, hospital emergency departments and state hospitals.
The team works closely with law enforcement and EMS agencies at the scene of a crisis by assessing the needs of the patient and the safety of all involved.
The team has safely conducted over 35,000 calls over the past 15 years.
Sometimes it's best for the patient and taxpayers when people are diverted from jail even though they've committed a misdemeanor, such as loitering, public intoxication or trespassing.
Sending an emergency unit or having a patient end up in jail or the emergency room all cost tax dollars when a client is uninsured or underinsured.
A likely candidate for jail diversion is someone suspected of committing a misdemeanor offense while experiencing symptoms of mental illness.
Jail diversion should not be misinterpreted as being "soft on crime." The goal is to reduce recidivism or even first-time offenses by offering individuals mental health services and substance use disorder (addiction) treatment.
This method of managing these types of 911 calls is gaining traction nationwide and ensures the most responsible use of each 911 asset – law enforcement, EMS, fire service and crisis response.
About 80 percent of the time the team can arrange counseling, psychiatric care or social services support instead of in-patient hospitalization for an individual. Facilitating care in the least restrictive environment is best for patients, families and taxpayers.
Also, incarceration is unlikely to rehabilitate people with mental illness and can worsen their mental state.
When law enforcement is at the scene along with a team member, together they can determine if the person should receive mental health treatment or go to jail. The determination is classified as a diversion only if an officer is on scene.
If a person needs treatment but there is a waiting list for services, team members will keep meeting with the person face-to-face or by phone until the situation is stabilized or a bed becomes available.
The team is also able to assist certain vulnerable individuals with groceries, housing and even tents for the homeless, but this can be challenging with a limited budget and a great need, especially during the pandemic.
Most of the team's calls are for people who are suicidal, homicidal or experiencing psychosis. Since the pandemic, calls have doubled from related stress causing an even greater overload of 911 calls on an already small team working throughout the county and every city within.
In 2019, the team responded to 2,415 calls and 95 of those resulted in jail diversions, saving the county $147,440.
Besides Burwell, the team consists of nine crisis response members.
Without our Mobile Outreach Team, we would rely only on our law enforcement and EMS paramedics to manage and transport patients suffering from mental health issues.
Thankfully, we have this great team of highly trained clinicians, allowing EMS and law enforcement to respond to more appropriate calls for their services.
Terry Cook is county commissioner of Precinct 1, which includes Round Rock, Brushy Creek and Northwest Austin.
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