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Advocates push for alternatives for non-violent offenders

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Criminal justice advocates are urging state lawmakers to draft new legislation to reduce the number of non-violent criminals sent to prison.

The issue was the main topic of a Hearing before a joint session of the House Corrections Committee and the House Committee on Criminal jurisprudence. The meeting began Tuesday morning with a stark warning from Corrections Committee Chairman Tan Parker, (R) Flower Mound.

"Unfortunately, more and more often, our jails are becoming psychiatric hospitals of today," said Parker.

Parker's concern comes as state lawmakers investigate possible reforms for the upcoming legislative session.

"There are a lot of challenges to make sure we get the treatment right, "said Brad Livingston- who heads up the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Livingston testified that recent funding increases for prison mental health programs have reduced recidivism rates but he said more needs to be done.

The top 3 mental health conditions in prison include; Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression. State data also indicates that 23,000 inmates are receiving out-patient type care, like counseling, while another 2,000 are hospitalized. It’s a heavy load and Livingston said the state mental health program needs help from the local level

"You reference the back end of the system, when offenders are released from prison, I move to the opposite side of the system and talk about providing the right kind of treatment and resources to offenders before they come to the system," said Livingston.

Building more jail cells, committee members were told, isn’t the solution. A new analysis indicates that across Texas, 40% of the inmates in county jails have already received state mental health services. It was suggested breaking the cycle would require more diversion programs for non-violent offenders with an emphasis on treating addictions. Of the 150,000 inmates in state prison, 62% have a chemical dependency. Committee members, during the hearing, seemed willing to embrace the idea.

"If you can avoid institutionalizing people there is a cheaper level of service, "said Rep. Lon Burnam (D) Fort Worth to Lynda Frost with the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.

The point made by Rep. Burnam, according to Frost, is only a first step.

"If we could save the correctional settings for people with serious correctional needs who present a risk to public safety and very complex criminal justice needs then in the community we can address more of the more mundane needs,” said Frost.

Convincing neighborhood groups, who may oppose community based treatment programs, even for nonviolent offenders, Frost admits, could be the most difficult step. Despite that, Frost believes increasing Diversion programs is the best path for Texas.

"We're talking about low level offenders, and the reality is people who are not going to spend a long time in our correctional settings, they are coming back to our communities,” said Frost.

Both Committees will draft a report to House Speaker Joe Straus. The Texas Legislature reconvenes in January.

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