Dave Rogers

For The Record

 

Orange County commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to an agreement that could slash jail costs for the mentally ill.

The contract with Spindletop Center for a Mental Health Liaison Deputy would cost the county zero as is funded 100 percent by the state.

“The goal of the ASAP program (Assist, Stabilize and Prevent) is to work with law enforcement and a qualified mental health professional to go evaluate individuals who may be or are in crisis in the community and help get them the resources they need,” said Spindletop’s Amber Wood.

She appeared Tuesday along with Tommy Smith, a former Orange County deputy for 24 years.

“We’ve taken community policing and put it into mental health,” said Smith, now a Jefferson County deputy assigned to Spindletop. “We get to know our people. We don’t just respond to a crisis after it happens. We get these people referrals before a crisis.

“We try to keep them from going into in-patient treatment.”

Wood and Smith cited statistics that showed probably 25 percent of people in jail are mentally ill.

They have worked the ASAP program with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office for four years, Wood said, and saved Jefferson County $6.2 million in mental health costs over that time.

“This is a new area for us,” Orange County Sheriff Keith Merritt said.

“I fully believe this would be a benefit to Orange County and the citizens to provide this deputy to deal with mental health people.

“It will help protect Orange County, for one thing, and help the people we deal with that have mental health issues to have someone professionally trained who knows how to deal with them.”

Merritt said he was unsure if the ASAP program would reduce call-outs for law enforcement immediately but it should cut down on calls over the long run.

The unanimous vote to enter that interlocal agreement was followed by another to pay Spindletop on a per-use basis to allow prisoners to receive a mental health screening from a licensed mid-level practitioner via videoconference.

Under last year’s “Sandra Bland Act,” law enforcement is required to provide a mental health screening assessment for any inmate suspected to have a mental illness on a 24/7 basis.

That contract with Spindletop would be capped at $25,000 per year, said Lt. Jim Eiselstein, OC’s assistant jail coordinator.

Orange County’s leaders paid just over $1 million in bills Tuesday.

Of that total, nearly $600,000 went to the Texas Association of Counties Risk Management Pool for liability insurance for the next year.