Mental health court offers hope


A Victoria jury recognized how broken the criminal justice system is in how it handles those struggling with mental illness.

The jurors knew the young man on trial before them needed treatment, not incarceration. Yet, they were presented with the option of either sending the man to prison or setting him free without any treatment.

That's because jails and prisons have become the country's de facto mental health treatment facilities ever since the United States moved away from state institutions in the 1960s. The consequences of that change have been a national disgrace.

The motivation to move away from warehousing the mentally ill was well-placed, but lawmakers never followed up with funding for an adequate system to provide care in the community. Texas lawmakers finally seem motivated this session to make a change, but it remains to be seen whether they will follow through and fix this decades-old broken promise to the most vulnerable in our society.

Local officials need to push for solutions, too. The Victoria Advocate's special series, "Minds That Matter," shows how a mental health court works in Midland County. This approach should be brought to the Crossroads and all of Texas.

The case of 27-year-old Alfred Crain Ramirez III is the perfect example of why the system needs to change. Jurors saw the issue clearly when they realized how the system had failed the young man suffering from schizoaffective disorder.

Rather than send Ramirez to prison for 20 years for threatening his parents, jurors did their best to force the system to help him. To the judge, they wrote that they wanted it in the record that Ramirez needed mental help. They even underlined their plea.

Ramirez's lawyer, Arnold Hayden, was relieved he won an acquittal for his client, but he also saw how the system would keep failing him. Ramirez walked out of the courtroom and to the streets of Victoria without any help provided him.

If his case had been heard in a mental health court, a judge could have ordered treatment and follow-up care. The results in Midland have been impressive: a drastic decrease in arrests and jail time.

Along with being the right thing to do for the people caught up in the system, this could be a cost-savings for taxpayers. In the Crossroads and across the country, about half of the inmates suffer from mental illness, meaning they aren't being cared for properly and they are a drain on society when they could be productive members instead.

Crossroads law enforcement officials and mental health experts have been working together to persuade legislators to fund a proposal to divert those in crisis before they land in jail. If people can be kept out of the criminal court system, that clearly is a better solution. Mental health case workers and deputies can work hand in hand to help rather than cuff those in crisis.

This effort should be done in conjunction with creating a mental health court. People like Ramirez need help, not punishment.

The Texas Department of Justice gave a grant to Midland County to help fund the mental health court. Alan Bell, the director of Midland County's Adult Probation Department, said he would do all he could to keep the court operating even if the grant isn't renewed.

"But whether we get it or not, I'll just shift my resources because I really believe in mental health court," Bell said.

This humane, smart approach to mental health care would be a dramatic shift for the Crossroads and the country. It also would require our society to look at those with mental health issues as people and not just anonymous statistics.

Ramirez is homeless and with little hope for a better life. That's a disgrace for a country with so much abundance.

Victoria jurors demanded the system do better by him. It's time society answered that call and did right by those who need help.

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

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