A public defender’s office solely representing the mentally ill – believed the first of its kind in the nation – will soon begin serving Travis County, Tx., criminal defendants afflicted with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression, the Houston Chronicle reports. The county’s Mental Health Public Defender Office, starting this year with a $500,000 state grant, aims to break the cycle of crime by steering seriously ill, indigent defendants to mental health services and treatment.
The new program comes amid heightened concerns in the Texas Legislature about crowded jails and prisons and the high cost of incarceration. Defendants identified with mental illness make up 15 percent of the county’s jail population. Such defendants “often languish in jail, spending more time there than other defendants charged with similar crimes,” said the county’s grant proposal. Pretrial detention data compiled by the Sheriff’s Office on 2,410 inmates show those with mental illness are incarcerated more than twice as long as other inmates. “We keep spending more and more money on the criminal justice system and less on the mental health system,” said Beth Mitchell of Advocacy Inc., which protects the legal rights of the disabled.