Jail Diversion Program expanding to more nonviolent offenders

There was a time not too long ago that the man working the gate would be looking out for trespassers like Stephen Douglas. Now, the formerly homeless drug user is the guy at the gate at the Open Door Mission.

"Back on the streets, it would've been a revolving door. I would've got a lot of trespassing and right back out with nowhere to go. So I'm glad it happened," he said.

The "it" he's talking about is ending up at the Harris Center. He was the third person law enforcement took there instead of to jail when it opened last September. He's the first to complete the Jail Diversion Program.

Here's how it works. If an officer encounters someone who has been trespassing and clearly has mental health issues, they can call the Harris County DA's office. An assistant District Attorney who can access their mental health records and arrest history can recommend they go to the Harris Center instead of jail. At the center they will get access to mental health care.

"Hopefully once we get them stabilized, we can get them a regular medical home and other services so they won't reoffend. That's where it manifests itself, is out in the community and it is a revolving door that cycles over and over again and is very costly."

It costs the county $75 a day to keep someone in the jail. Mental patients cost about $100 a day. That doesn’t include all the related court costs. Not only that it takes an officer just twelve minutes to drop off someone at the center, it takes two hours to book someone into jail before an officer is back on the street.

So far, 1,100 people have gone through the grant-funded program since it opened. The average stay is 65 hours. The county estimates it's saved about nine million dollars so far. 

Now that the new system is working, the plan is to expand and start accepting mental patients who commit other non-violent offenses like failure to identify yourself to an officer.

As for Douglas, he's looking for a job and would love to be a peer counselor to help others like him get the kind of break he did.

"Instead of going to jail and getting a charge, I received help and I ran with it. I never looked back."

May is Mental Health Awareness Month.