Dallas County Innovative in Approach to Dealing With Mental Illness
by Judge Kristin Wade
DallasCountyhas been aggressively focusing on the burgeoning population of mentally ill offenders in the criminal justice system since 2004. That year, Dallas County was able to obtain a grant from TACOOMI (Texas Correctional Office on Offenders with Medical or Mental Impairments) to operate a misdemeanor and felony mental health jail diversion program. TACOOMI is a state agency that has given grant money to the program to provide intensive case management and drug treatment money.
The Dallas County Misdemeanor Jail Diversion Program has been successfully diverting mentally ill offenders from jail into treatment in the private sector since 2004. The goal of the program is to provide intensive case management, judicial monitoring and drug and alcohol treatment when necessary to stabilize mentally ill inmates and help them become productive citizens. Since its inception, the program has graduated approximately 437 clients. Judge Kristin Wade meets with the clients several times a month and the program is individualized to help meet each client’s needs. Many of the participants are homeless and need a great deal of support to find housing, get proper identification and help in signing up for services like food stamps and social security disability. For the clients that already have housing, the program focuses on goals such as education, employment, medication compliance and drug and alcohol treatment. There are no costs to the clients and they are not required to do any type of community service or specific court-ordered classes. The program is six months long, and if the participants successfully complete the program they get their criminal case dismissed.
The felony jail diversion program is run by Judge Susan Hawk and is called ATLAS (Achieving True Liberty and Success). ATLAS is a “last chance” court for persons with major mental disorders who are on probation. Instead of revoking these clients and sending them to the penitentiary, ATLAS provides a one year program designed to help clients comply with their probations. ATLAS, similar to the Misdemeanor Mental Health Jail Diversion Program, uses intensive case management, incentives, sanctions and judicial monitoring to get their clients back on track. ATLAS has been operating since 2004, and has been successful in reducing recidivism. The University of North Texas did a study and concluded that ATLAS participation resulted in a 66.7 percent reduction in recidivism.
The Dallas County Public Defenders’ Office, which is headed by Chief Public Defender, Lynn Pride Richardson, is responsible for approximately 50 percent of all indigent defense in Dallas County. Ms. Richardson has been a long time advocate for effective and innovative treatment of offenders with mental illness. Her public defender’s office has a mental health division with five lawyers and two mental health case workers. The funding for her special unit comes from the Dallas County Commissioners Court. Ms. Richardson is currently in the process obtaining additional funding for two additional lawyers and case workers to deal with the increasing population of mentally ill offenders.
Finally Judge Doug Skemp runs a Misdemeanor Competency court. In addition to the specialty courts, the Dallas County Probation Department, run by Dr. Michael Noyes is proactive and innovative in dealing with probationers with mental illness or impairments. Dallas County, in conjunction with the probation department, has a residential treatment facility for clients with mental illness and drug dependency issues. After an intensive screening from probation, clients are recommended for a four-month inpatient treatment program and then referred to two additional specialty courts for judicial monitoring, run by Judge Mark Stoltz and Judge Rick Magnus.
Judge Kristin Wade is a judge with the County Court of Criminal Appeals No. 1. She can be reached at Kristin.Wade@dallascounty.org.