Texas’ two highest courts begin addressing mental health challenges

Sonja Gaines from Texas HHSC testifies in front of the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals. (KXAN Photo/Steffi Lee)
Sonja Gaines from Texas HHSC testifies in front of the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals. (KXAN Photo/Steffi Lee)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Two of the highest courts in Texas say mental health challenges are taking a toll on the judicial system.

Numbers from the Meadows Mental Health Public Policy Institute show the state spends around $1.4 billion in emergency room costs and $650 million in local judicial expenses to deal with mental illnesses.

Reasons like that motivated the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to collaborate and form the Judicial Commission Mental Health. Both courts held a joint hearing that took place at the Texas Supreme Court on Thursday and much of the discussion focused on working together rather than separately. Judges heard testimonies from several mental health advocates.

“There’s much work to be done and the third branch will do its part to improve the administration of justice and preserve the integrity of the rule of law,” Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said.

Justice Bill Boyce from the 14th Court of Appeals and chair of the Judicial Council Mental Health Committee said steps are being taken statewide to address outpatient treatment capacity, but a lot of individuals still end up seeking services from the Texas Criminal Justice System and the Civil Justice System.

“Most who are incarcerated are eventually going to return home,” he said. “Once there, the consequences of inadequate treatment capacity play out in predictable and damaging ways for these individuals, their families and their communities.”

Boyce said launching this commission shows the need for active judicial involvement in the search for effective solutions when dealing with mental health challenges.

Sonja Gaines, associate commissioner for intellectual and developmental disabilities & behavioral health services with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said specialty courts and jail diversion programs across the state have played key roles in helping individuals with mental illnesses.

Senior District Judge John Specia said judges need to drive this conversation within their communities.

“When a judge calls a meeting, people come – whether it’s the superintendents, the doctors or the mental health people,” he said. “So judges are in a unique position to be able to call people together and identify problems and not fix them, but send those folks off to fix them.”

Judges plan to review legislation as part of the commission’s work and will participate in a criminal justice conference next month in Austin.

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