A new law requiring the state to collect data on how often jail inmates are denied mental health care could help the public understand why nearly 2,500 people are waiting for a bed in a state-funded psychiatric hospital – and how the system is lacking.

But state officials don’t know how long it will take to establish the infrastructure needed to gather this information.

Gov. Greg Abbott signed the law on Saturday but JosĂ© AndrĂ©s Araiza, spokesman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which would oversee the data collection, said the agency needs more time to “fully analyze the legislation.” 

The bill, Senate Bill 26, was sponsored by state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham. With Abbott’s signature, the state is now required to audit local mental health authorities – which contract with the commission to provide mental health care statewide – and publish online data related to mental health care.

This, experts hope, will help the public learn how often overcrowded jails are denied requests for mental health services for inmates.

Exterior view of the Harris County Jail
Harris County Jail in downtown Houston. (Marie D. De JesĂşs/Houston Landing)

“By requiring accurate and transparent information, the state can better determine key issues that cause individuals with a mental illness to sit far too long in county jails waiting for mental health treatment,” said Greg Hansch, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Health Texas.

“Furthermore, it will help the state understand the scope of the gap in care for individuals with mental illness in county jails,” he added.

Kolkhorst’s bill was filed soon after the Houston Landing published an investigation in February that found that one third of the 576 people who died of unnatural causes in the custody of Texas jails had a documented mental health concern dating back to the 1980s.

That number was even higher in the eight counties that make up the greater Houston area, where nearly half of the 119 people who died of unnatural causes in jail over the past decade had been identified as mentally ill. Yet many of the inmates hadn’t received desperately needed care.

A day after the story published in February, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo cited the investigation in awarding $645,000 toward more than doubling the number of people whose competency can be restored through the Harris County Jail’s competency restoration program.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo holds a news conference at the Harris Center for Mental Health in Houston.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo holds a news conference at the Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD, Feb. 9, in Houston. (Marie D. De JesĂşs / Houston Landing)

Kolkhorst was not made available for comment, but said during a Senate committee hearing in March that her office was hearing from constituents that mental health services were not being offered at all and, if they were, they were not being provided in a timely manner. 

While the state still is analyzing the bill, Hansch hopes that this reporting system will be in place no later than 2024. He acknowledged, however, that a tracking system may take longer to get up and running than expected.

Other data points the state would be required to collect – and published monthly or as often as possible online – include the number of people referred to a state psychiatric hospital or community-based hospital for mental health care, as well as the length of time between referral, admission and length of state.

Also tracked will be access to timely and adequate mental health screenings, as well as access to treatment, be it in a community-based setting or a psychiatric facility. It’s not currently clear if local mental health authorities would collect the data or if jails would report the data to the state. 

The law also establishes innovation grants for early intervention and treatment of mental health across Texas and requires the commission to develop a plan by January 2025 to move people in behavioral health hospitals who require nursing facility-level care to nursing facilities. That transition plan can only be implemented if it will increase general revenue.

The new law is expected to cost $15.8 million through the end of Aug. 31, 2025. The funds would be spent, in part, on funding technology to make the data collection possible, as well as two full-time employees to implement the reporting system. 

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Alex Stuckey is an investigative reporter for the Houston Landing. She is a 2017 Pulitzer Prize and 2022 Livingston Award winner. In 2022, she received the Charles E. Green Award for Star Reporter of the...