Diversion Program Changing Lives in Smith County
In many counties, the county jail has become a de facto mental institution, housing mentally ill inmates awaiting due process without their medications and/or life-sustaining therapies. The situation is lose-lose-lose; the inmates and their families, fellow inmates and jail staff, and the taxpayers are all affected. Money has been appropriated, and programs have been established. But are they enough? Or are they just a starting point?
Our November 2022 issue told one family’s story of hope and heartbreak. Sadly, this family’s journey continues with Brad, their son and brother, a once-jailed mentally ill inmate, now officially listed as a missing person, having vanished three years ago, https://countyprogress.com/mentally-ill-inmates/.
This month’s story examines a program specifically developed for those like Brad, people in need of therapy instead of incarceration.
Smith County Community Diversion Coordinator Pilot Program
Several years ago, Northeast Texas experienced a disturbing increase in the suicide rate, reported mental health advocate Sandra Brazil-Hamilton, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Tyler. The sobering local suicide statistic fueled her continued commitment to serving those challenged with mental illness.
At the end of 2021, Brazil-Hamilton was hired as Smith County’s diversion coordinator, funded by a recently launched pilot program created by The Texas Judicial Commission on Mental Health (JCMH). Three counties were selected for the program, developed to facilitate coordination between courts and behavioral health providers to help inmates. The program focuses on defendants with mental illness who have been charged with non-violent offenses with the goal of diverting them from the criminal justice system. The coordinator positions are being funded by JCMH for at least two years (see additional program details in related article).
“Smith County was thrilled to be selected as one of three counties to participate in the Community Diversion Coordinator Pilot Program,” shared Smith County Judge Neal Franklin. “Just like most counties in Texas, we face overcrowding issues in our county jail. We spend a lot of tax dollars housing defendants with mental health issues in our jail, so it is very beneficial to divert these particular candidates from our county jail,” Franklin continued. “Most importantly, we are assisting these individuals to receive the care they desperately need.”
Looking back on her first year with Smith County, Brazil-Hamilton said there are still many challenges to conquer. However, she is inspired by the stories that have come full circle.
“I walk this journey with them,” she explained. “After one year, I am getting calls saying, ‘I’m one year clean and sober!’ ‘I found a job!’ ‘I am going to make it!’ People who were at one time headed to a county jail cell have been treated and given the tools to contribute to society. Brazil-Hamilton has relished these calls and celebrated these successes with the participants and their families.
When County Progress visited with Maya in late December, she was two weeks into a new job at Tesla and about seven weeks away from completing her probation in early February 2023.
Maya’s history includes depression and PTSD resulting from domestic violence. She was initially arrested in 2021 and charged with DWI, and then later arrested in 2022 for failing to show up for a required visit with her probation officer. When authorities came to her home after her failure to appear, Maya, now 35, was shut down and overwhelmed by the trauma of domestic abuse. When Brazil-Hamilton met Maya, she immediately began the diversion process.
Brazil-Hamilton meets with judges in the mornings to see who may have mental health concerns. Not only is she working with the inmates, but she also coordinates plans and resources for the courts and everyone involved on the legal side.
“Once a plan is in place, the judges make that part of their condition of probation, as opposed to them just sitting in jail and decompensating,” Brazil-Hamilton emphasized.
Maya’s treatment included group therapy and home visits, what Maya described as an “intensive outpatient program.” She was also ordered to complete community service, subject to random urinalysis screenings, and continue seeing her probation officer.
Since taking part in the Smith County Diversion Program, Maya has secured a job and made plans to go back to school in 2023 to pursue a master’s degree in fire science with the goal of one day working for the bureau of land management.
Whenever Maya has the opportunity, she stops in to see Brazil-Hamilton.
“She is a joy,” Maya declared. “I love Mrs. Brazil-Hamilton so much. I wish there were more people like her helping more people like me.”
Speaking frankly, Maya said she is aware that not everyone sees the worth of the program.
“It’s disheartening to hear how some judges or district attorneys or other entities don’t see the value,” Maya observed. “It is not a get-out of-jail free card. You have to follow the conditions, like community service or random drug tests.”
Challenges/Steps to Success
Brazil-Hamilton has been professionally and personally rewarded with the effect the diversion program has had on people like Maya and their families. She has spoken with dozens of desperate parents, spouses, and children who once believed their loved one was out of options; these same family members now have hope. With that said, Brazil-Hamilton is, at times, overwhelmed with obstacles still to be conquered. She chose to present these challenges in a list of “Steps to Success.”
While progress has been made shedding the long-fought stigma associated with mental illness, there is still much work to do.
“You can’t punish an illness out of people,” Brazil-Hamilton stressed. “Those afflicted with mental illness need support and treatment to improve. With proper and carefully planned treatment and follow-up support, many will become productive and contributing members of society.
“These are not ‘throw-away’ people,” she added passionately. “They are people with an illness.”
Commitment, Collaboration, Communication
Brazil-Hamilton is one person on a team of what Franklin termed “necessary players.”
Collaboration is required between law enforcement agencies, EMS, judges, district attorneys, hospital systems, the local mental health authority, and a large assortment of nonprofit and for-profit agencies, Franklin underscored.
“It takes a community effort in the judicial system,” Brazil-Hamilton maintained. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘How bad do we want it?’ ”
Brazil-Hamilton’s 30 years of experience in the mental health field have taught her that fragmented efforts are not fruitful; rather, every involved individual/department/entity must be fully committed.
“It takes a real collaborative effort to make this work,” she repeated, “including people with the willingness to consider options, who have abandoned the mentality that we can ‘punish out’ the mental illness, the addiction, the substance abuse, or the intellectual/developmental disability.”
Other counties have noted the value of Smith County’s diversion program and have asked Brazil-Hamilton, “How did you do this?”
“This has been a gift from the State of Texas,” Brazil-Hamilton said, referring to the pilot program. “We hope this program will continue. We need it to continue.”