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When a mental health crisis in Texas snowballs into something even worse

When a mental health crisis in Texas snowballs into something even worse

(Courtesy image via Hinkle-Barer/KXAN)
(Courtesy image via Hinkle-Barer/KXAN)

A woman experiencing a mental health crisis is writhing in a hospital bed and spits on an attending nurse. A man having a mental breakdown is being placed in handcuffs when he kicks backward and hits a police officer’s shin. Because of stiff penalties and a backlogged state hospital system, those relatively minor assaults can snowball into extended legal debacles for individuals with mental illness in Texas.

While investigating mental competency problems inside Texas jails, KXAN identified this additional startling trend that warrants further investigation: people experiencing mental crises being charged for assaulting those responding to the scene. This often happens because those first responders and medical personnel — police, nurses, and emergency medical technicians — are not always trained to work with people with mental illness or do not follow de-escalation standards.

Because of the nature of these arrests, individuals can find themselves languishing in Texas' county jails. In Texas, a person’s criminal case cannot proceed if they are found incompetent to stand trial — meaning they are unable to participate in their own defense. 

Once someone is designated incompetent, they often wait in line behind hundreds of other people incapable of standing trial — sometimes over a year — for a bed in a state hospital to get the help they need to restore mental competency. This year, those numbers have hit record levels. 

Through USC Annenberg’s National Fellowship, we plan to take a data-driven approach to explore those heightened arrests in Texas’ most populated counties and their trends, which could include race-ethnicity, socioeconomic backgrounds, homeless factors and arresting agencies. We plan to highlight cases and evidence obtained through open records in a multi-platform project that will build on our previous work.

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