Rare program offers treatment instead of punishment for mentally ill

What do you think a person with mental illness needs -- treatment or punishment?  Believe it or not, until now punishment was the only option for someone suffering mental illness who ended up arrested for a non-violent crime.  Now that will change thanks to a new program.

A building which was just dedicated today has actually been open about three weeks now.  Already 150 people with mental illness who would have gone to jail a month ago, actually came here to get help instead.

With a “1, 2, 3” count the ribbon was cut and the building is officially open. The grand opening means thousands with mental illness who commit a Class C Misdemeanor will be brought here for treatment instead of being called a criminal and repeatedly sent to jail.

”Like trespassing on a regular basis.  We have one guy that we monitor, that we have arrested 50 times and booked 50 times in one year,” explains Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo. 

“As soon as I learned about the Harris County Jail being the largest mental health facility in the state of Texas and people getting re-arrested I said 'that's my dad,'” explains Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.  Judge Emmett says his dad suffered a panic disorder, couldn't be alone and wouldn't go home after work without his wife.

“He'd go to Meyerland Mall and he would walk around the mall until she got off work at 9 o'clock.  Well if he hadn't been a mid-level oil company looking guy, and certainly if he had been a minority in the 60's and 70's, he would have been arrested for trespassing over and over and over,” says Judge Emmett. 

Clearly this new building is personal for the judge.  It's even named after him and the Judge Ed Emmett Mental Health Diversion Center houses the program that started in his office with the help of State Senator Joan Huffman and State Representative Senfronia Thompson.

”I am glad this center will not only assist those who may need jail diversion but other individuals seeking compassionate care,” says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

”I'm very proud to be a part of this.  I'm very passionate about this work,” adds Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez.  Law enforcement will work with the Harris County District Attorney's Office to determine who's sick.

”This facility is to make sure that people like that don't end up in the criminal justice system,” says Judge Emmett.  

The Judge Ed Emmett Mental Health Diversion Center can house more than 40 people at the Dennis Street location in Midtown and an additional 30 at another location.

This type of program is extremely rare.  Only a handful of cities offer help instead of jail for the mentally ill.