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Bexar County’s Work on Mental Illness Called ‘Beacon of Success’ at Senate Hearing
By Rosanne Hughes, BCSO Communications Office
Published: 02/15/2016

Testimony 1 scaled
Criminal justice reform is a hot topic in Washington, D.C. As jails and prisons across the country struggle to manage and treat mentally ill inmates, lawmakers are recognizing changes are needed.

On February 10, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on mental illness. Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau was asked to testify before the panel because of the progress Bexar County has made in recent years to address this issue.

“The key to the county’s success with this population has been collaboration with all of the stakeholders,” Pamerleau said.

Bexar County leaders developed an overarching system over the past 10 years to address mental health issues. The focus in on specialty courts that divert the mentally ill from jail and into treatment centers. There has also been an emphasis on ensuring mental health screenings take place at the point of arrest – prior to magistration. Bexar County Sheriff’s Office also mandates Crisis Intervention Training for all deputies, which has resulted in a drastic drop in use of force claims.

“We knew we needed to identify those with mental illness early in the process,” she said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who invited Pamerleau, said, “By screening people with mental illness and diverting them to evidence-based treatment instead of jail, Bexar County has saved millions of dollars per year, reduced crime rates, increased public safety, and given mentally ill individuals a chance to break the cruel cycle of their illness. That model for mental health treatment has become a beacon of success.”

Pamerleau said the costs of incarcerating the mentally ill are not merely financial.

“Jails are not the place for those suffering from mental illness,” she said. “Had we identified them early, the first time, think about the human capital we could have saved. Most have not committed serious crimes, but are in jail because of untreated mental illness. That first brush with the law could have been turned into treatment as a condition of pre-trial release, rather than being caught up in the criminal justice system over and over again.”

Rosanne Hughes is a change management specialist at the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office.


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