New law comes too late to help Victoria teen

By the Advocate Editorial Board
Oct. 11, 2017 at 4:06 p.m.
Updated Oct. 12, 2017 at 4:21 p.m.

It was never going to be an easy process, a quick fix or smooth sailing.

Still, we are trudging forward, attempting to fix our broken criminal justice system. The ultimate goal is that people with mental illness get treated rather than jailed. Two million people with mental illnesses are booked into jails every year.

A Sept. 30 story in the Victoria Advocate's "Minds that Matter" series illustrates how easily someone with an illness can enter the criminal justice system. This heart-wrenching story should inspire change. Sadly, it's one of many stories that we as a community, as a nation, have grown accustomed to hearing.

The Sandra Bland Act, even in its watered-down form, is supposed to address the circumstances that led to the death of a woman in a county jail days after she was arrested for a routine traffic violation in 2015.

The act mandates county jails divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues to treatment and requires that independent law enforcement agencies investigate jail deaths. The act also ensures that law enforcement officers receive de-escalation training for all situations as part of their basic training and continuing education.

Less than two weeks before the new state law went into effect, a Victoria family called the sheriff's office for help.

Tyler Shelton, 18, had parked his truck on some land in the county and refused to come home. Diagnosed with bipolar I disorder and not taking his medication, he was experiencing a manic episode.

His family called the authorities so that they knew he was not armed or dangerous. His family called thinking they could get him to take his medication or get the help he desperately needed.

Instead, the teen was arrested on suspicion of burglary of a building.

Where was the new law enforcement unit designed to handle mental health-related calls? The program, which started in May, only has enough funding for two officers, who don't work past 8 p.m. or on weekends. There's no doubt the unit is doing what it can on limited resources, but how can we expand this program so that it does more good? The grant has been extended a year, so we'll see how it all shakes out. But in the meantime, people will fall through the cracks. We must do better.

Once Shelton was behind bars, he refused to sign a sheet of paper expressing he wanted Gulf Bend Center services. Because he is an adult, his family watched helplessly as Shelton's condition worsened.

Sept. 15, he tried to kill himself. When jailers tried to restrain him, he lashed out and injured seven. He and four jail employees were sent to the hospital.

His family didn't even know about the incident until after he was returned to the jail and another inmate called.

His attorney said Shelton was not evaluated for mental illness in the jail until five days after the sheriff's office says he made the noose. Officials are hopeful that a revised form from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards will prompt jailers to ask more detailed questions and know when to notify a supervisor, judge or a mental health authority.

One in five adults in this country experience a mental illness, so we should be willing to push for change.

There are some promising initiatives in the works, but for many families, it feels like a day late and a dollar short.

Until then, Shelton sits in a jail cell charged with eight counts of assault of a public servant.

This opinion reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.


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