By Julie Anderson
On June 15, Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 1849, known as the Sandra Bland Act, into law. That same day, USA Today published an opinion piece saying the new Texas law “sets an example for rest of the nation.” The article, authored by Nick Selby, a Dallas-area police detective, and Colt Remington, a certified Texas mental health peace officer, focuses on the ineffective “warehousing of the mentally ill” and praises the legislation for “forcing accountability in the mental health industry,” https://usat.ly/2A7xaov.
While diverting the mentally ill from county jails is an important element of the legislation, the Senate Research Center’s bill analysis summarizes the components of the statute as follows: bail reform, jail diversion, jail safety, officer training, racial profiling, data collection, officer discipline and behavioral health.
The legislation was filed following a high-profile incident in 2015 in which a 28-year-old Illinois woman, Sandra Bland, died in the Waller County Jail days after being arrested during a routine traffic stop. Official autopsy reports ruled Bland’s death as a suicide.
“To make both officers and the public safer, S.B. 1849 increases officer training in general de-escalation and mental health de-escalation tactics,” the Senate bill analysis reads. “The use of de-escalation tactics helps ensure that both law enforcement and the public are able to go home safe.”
The Sandra Bland Act requires several changes to Minimum Jail Standards, reported Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (Commission). During the summer and fall months, Wood traveled throughout the state briefing County Judges, County Commissioners and other officials on developing changes to Minimum Jail Standards, other new requirements in the statute, and related deadlines.
To view the statute and the bill analysis in full, go to http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/, click on (85)R, and key in SB1849.
Important elements of the Sandra Bland Act include the following:
Identification and Notification of Defendant Suspected of Having Mental Illness or Intellectual Disability to Magistrate
The Code of Criminal Procedure was amended to require the sheriff, “not later than 12 hours, rather than 72 hours, after receiving credible information that may establish reasonable cause to believe that a defendant committed to the sheriff’s custody has a mental illness or is a person with an intellectual disability, including observation of the defendant’s behavior immediately before, during, and after the defendant’s arrest and the results of any previous assessment of the defendant, to provide written or electronic notice of the information to the magistrate.”
Key Change: The notification requirement is now 12 hours rather than 72 hours; this change went into effect on Sept. 1, 2017.
Diversion of Those Suffering Mental Health Crisis or Substance Abuse
The Code of Criminal Procedure was amended to require each law enforcement agency to make a “good faith effort” to divert a person suffering a mental health crisis or suffering from the effects of substance abuse to a proper treatment center in the agency’s jurisdiction if:
- there is an available and appropriate treatment center in the agency’s jurisdiction to which the agency is authorized to divert the person;
- it is reasonable to divert the person;
- the offense that the person is accused of is a misdemeanor, other than a misdemeanor involving violence; and
- the mental health crisis or substance abuse issue is suspected to be the reason the person committed the alleged offense.
This new requirement went into effect on Sept. 1, 2017.
Grant Money for Community Collaboratives
The Sandra Bland Act amended the Government Code to require the Department of State Health Services to, depending on appropriated funds, make grants available to certain entities for the establishment or expansion of collaboratives to provide services to those experiencing homelessness, substance abuse issues, or mental illness. Language was also added to the statute requiring the development of plans for certain community collaboratives.
Release on Personal Bond of Certain Defendants with Mental Illness or Intellectual Disability
The Code of Criminal Procedure was amended to require a magistrate to “release a defendant on personal bond unless good cause is shown otherwise if the defendant is examined by the local mental health or intellectual and developmental disability authority or a certain other mental health expert and an applicable expert, in a certain written assessment concludes that the defendant has a mental illness or is a person with an intellectual disability and is nonetheless competent to stand trial, and recommends mental health treatment or intellectual disability treatment for the defendant, as applicable.”
This new requirement took effect on Sept. 1, 2017.
Safety of Prisoners
The Sandra Bland Act requires county jails to:
- give prisoners the ability to access a mental health professional at the jail through a telemental health service 24 hours a day;
- give prisoners the ability to access a health professional at the jail or through a telehealth service 24 hours a day, or if a health professional is unavailable at the jail or through a telehealth service, provide for a prisoner to be transported to access a health professional; and
- install automated electronic sensors or cameras to ensure accurate and timely in-person checks of cells or groups of cells confining at-risk individuals. The Legislature created an account titled the Prisoner Safety Fund, and counties that operate a jail that is 96 beds or less may apply for grants to assist in paying for the capital improvement upgrades, such as electronic sensors and possibly cameras. The grant program is currently in development.
The deadline for the Commission to adopt rules and procedures regarding these new requirements is Sept. 1, 2018. The county must comply with these new requirements by Sept. 1, 2020.
The Commission has “been provided direction from the authors” that any funds that are left over after fulfilling the installation of sensors or cameras may be used to assist counties (96 beds or less) with the equipment for the other two mandates, but not the ongoing operational cost, Wood reported.
Continuity of Medications
The Commission shall adopt reasonable rules and procedures establishing minimum standards regarding the continuity of prescription medications for the care and treatment of prisoners. The rules and procedures shall require that a qualified medical professional shall review as soon as possible any prescription medication a prisoner is taking when the prisoner is taken into custody.
This new requirement will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2018.
Serious Incident Report
On or before the fifth day of each month, the sheriff of each county must report to the Commission any of the following incidents that happened in the county jail during the prior month:
- attempted suicide
- serious bodily injury, as that term is defined by Section 1.07, Penal Code
- sexual assault
- any use of force resulting in bodily injury, as that term is defined by Section 1.07, Penal Code
The new rule will become effective Jan. 1, 2018, and the first reports will be due on Feb. 5, 2018, covering the previous month, Wood said.
Death in Custody Investigation
On the death of a prisoner in a county jail, the Commission shall appoint a law enforcement agency, other than the local law enforcement agency that operates the county jail, to investigate the death as soon as possible.
The Commission shall adopt any rules necessary relating to the appointment of a law enforcement agency, including rules relating to cooperation between law enforcement agencies and to procedures for handling evidence, by Jan. 1, 2018.
While counties may have their own criminal investigators or internal affairs divisions investigate deaths in custody, the Commission is mandated to appoint an independent, outside agency to investigate the death.
Jail Administrator Examination
The Government Code was amended to require the Texas Division on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) to develop and the Commission to approve an examination for county jail administrators.
Specifically, the law states that the Commission must adopt rules requiring a person, other than a sheriff, assigned to the jail administrator position overseeing a county jail to pass the examination not later than the 180th day after the date the person is assigned to that position. The rules must provide that a person who fails the examination is authorized to be immediately removed from the position and is prohibited from being reinstated until the person passes the examination.
The sheriff of a county must perform the duties of the jail administrator position at any time there is not a person available who satisfies the examination requirements of this new section of law.
TCOLE and the Commission must have the test prepared and approved by March 1, 2018. Anyone serving as a jail administrator on or before March 1 will be grandfathered and not required to take the exam. However, if a jail administrator transfers to another county, or a new or incoming sheriff appoints the existing jail administrator to the same position, the exemption does not apply, and the administrator must take the exam.
Jail Training – Mental Health Course
The Occupations Code was amended to require that county jailer training include at least eight hours of mental health training approved by TCOLE and the Commission. Current license holders have until Aug. 31, 2021, to take an approved eight-hour course.
The new law requires the Commission to employ three mental health trainers who will be responsible for teaching the mental course in their assigned regions.
The training will be at no cost to the county.
New Training Requirement for Law Enforcement Officers
The Occupations Code was amended to require TCOLE, as part of the minimum curriculum requirements, to require an officer to complete a 40-hour statewide education and training program on de-escalation and crisis intervention techniques to facilitate interaction with persons with mental impairments. The new language also requires TCOLE, as part of the minimum curriculum requirements, to require an officer to complete a statewide education and training program on de-escalation techniques to facilitate interaction with members of the public, including techniques for limiting the use of force resulting in bodily injury.
To read more about this requirement, please see the statute: http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/, click on (85)R, and key in SB1849.
Wood, who has fielded a multitude of questions from officials across the state, offered the following suggestions:
- The law does not require electronic sensors or cameras for each and every cell, “so be mindful of that statement from vendors,” Wood emphasized. The agency will be conducting a survey to assist counties in determining if they already comply or what they will need in order to comply.
- Regarding the eight-hour course for jailers: This course is free and will be conducted across the state over the next four years. “Make sure your jailers do not wait until the last moment to attend one of the classes,” Wood cautioned. Regarding jail administrators who are grandfathered in, “we encourage all of them to take the exam as it helps promote professionalism within their profession and demonstrates competency.”
“Additional Technical Assistance Memos will be distributed on each and every topic providing guidance on what is required to comply and hopefully clear up any misinformation that is making the rounds,” Wood shared.