By Sharon Guzman, Director of Texas Correctional Office on Offenders with Medical or Mental Impairments (TCOOMI) Services – Bluebonnet Trails
On May 30, 2007, a man pulled a butcher knife on a police officer at a convenience store in Georgetown, Texas. The incident was caught on video by the security camera outside the store. The video, provided by the district attorney, clearly showed this man waiting for the right moment to approach the police officer and later the pending arrest of the individual. This incident set in motion a series of events that would lead to significant changes in the criminal justice and mental health systems in Williamson County.
Alan Pastor, a brilliant man, is soft-spoken and witty, comes from a solid, close-knit family, and could have been your favorite brother-in-law or your super-successful cousin in up-state New York. But Alan also has a mental illness known as schizoaffective disorder. At the height of his illness he was sent to a private psychiatric facility on his insurance and released shortly thereafter. His parents picked him up and, in retrospect, said “he was not himself.” Unstable, sick and fearful, Alan believed something would happen to his family, something that, to this day, he cannot put into words. He decided to take action. The night after his discharge from the psychiatric hospital, Alan approached the police officer with the knife hoping to be taken to jail – a safe place in Alan’s mind. He got his wish and was arrested for aggravated assault on a public servant with a deadly weapon and placed in the Williamson County Jail.
Alan was found incompetent to stand trial and was placed on a “46B commitment” to Vernon State Hospital. At present, there are more than 300 inmates awaiting transfers to a state hospital for competency restoration. Alan had to wait for months for a bed at Vernon State Hospital, and his illness became worse. During his second admission to Vernon, Bluebonnet Trails Community Services requested a transfer to the local state hospital in Austin to ensure stability and work closely with the courts for resolution. After almost two years that included 359 days in jail, 222 days at Vernon State Hospital (two admissions), 90 days at Austin State Hospital, and 32 days at the Bluebonnet Trails Community Services Crisis Respite Unit, Alan received a sentence of 10 years probation, deferred. He was placed on Probation’s Special Needs Caseload and into Bluebonnet Trails Community Services’ TCOOMMI program, and finally allowed to go home.
If this series of events had happened today, things would have gone very differently for Alan due to strong collaborative efforts between Bluebonnet Trails Community Services and Williamson County. Today Alan could call the Crisis Hotline or Mobile Crisis Outreach Team for help instead of committing a crime in order to receive assistance during a mental health crisis. Had he committed the offense today, the sheriff’s department would have sent Crisis Intervention Team officers armed with mental health training and an ability to de-escalate a mental health emergency. Today Alan would be taken back to the private hospital that released him or sent to the local state hospital for stabilization and then released to Bluebonnet Trails with the proper medication and a solid plan for outpatient treatment. Even if Alan had been arrested and placed in the Williamson County Jail, previous mental health treatment match data would alert jail staff at booking of Alan’s previous mental health care from public facilities. The magistrate would then call the Bluebonnet Trails Community Services’ jail diversion specialist to get Alan into treatment instead of incarcerating him.
We still have room for improvement in this process. While collaboration between the Mental Health Authority and the criminal justice system has improved dramatically in Williamson County, relationships with defense attorneys are often still strained. Providing mental health training, and possibly even certification, to defense counsel assigned to mental health inmates would facilitate mutual understanding and better collaboration.
Wait times between hearing dates after an inmate returns to jail from treatment are still too long leading to an increased risk of deterioration. Being able to transfer inmates from Vernon State Hospital to local area state hospitals or even respite centers as appropriate in lieu of a jail wait would allow the Mental Health Authority to work more closely with the client, the family, and the courts while continuing to provide treatment and prevent deterioration.
What we have learned is that collaboration between the Mental Health Authority and law enforcement, the jails, the court system, district attorneys and defense attorneys, as well as probation and parole, is critical to providing an appropriate system of care for offenders with mental illness and balancing public safety and wise spending of taxpayer dollars. In the end, these entities must communicate with one another and commit to working together to provide continuity of care. This will occur only when we all come to the realization that we are working toward the same goals – reduction in wasteful spending, appropriate incarcerations, and public safety.
Alan is doing well, stable on his medication, and is expected to complete his probation early. He recently signed up to become a peer specialist to help others through their recovery. Alan continues to tell his story in an effort to promote change for others in similar situations. H –Sharon Guzman, MA, LPC, is the director of TCOOMMI Services for Bluebonnet Trails Community Services. She is a graduate of the University of Texas – Austin and received her master’s in counseling from Texas State University.