The nation’s third-largest county is utilizing diversion programs to keep people charged with non-violent, low-level crimes out of jail.
By Matt Keyser
Stephen Douglas was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at a young age.
A native Houstonian who grew up in poverty, Douglas found himself in and out of jail for various crimes he attributes to his diagnosis. Looking back on his life, he feels he was on a path that would lead to more jail time—maybe even a stint in prison.
That changed on Sept. 5, 2018, when Douglas, dealing with a medical crisis, reached out to a friend for help. That friend called 9-1-1. When officers arrived, they didn’t take Douglas to the Harris County Jail like times before. Instead, he was taken to a newly opened, county-run diversion center aimed to help people struggling with mental illness.
“By the grace of God I didn’t go to jail,” Douglas told a crowd at the 2019 Police Executive Research Forum Conference. “I went to a diversion center and that’s where they planted the seed.”
Across the country, local governments are battling cash-strapped budgets, crowded jails, and community calls for change. In an effort to satisfy all three challenges, leaders are taking more creative approaches to better allocate tax dollars, reduce jail populations, and provide needed resources to assist with mental health, addiction, or homelessness.
Those approaches are a stark difference from the tough-on-crime mindset of decades past. From 1983 to 2013, the average daily jail population in the United States more than tripled to 731,000, according to a 2015 study by the Vera Institute of Justice. (Vera is a partner of NPPJ.) Many of those people hadn’t been convicted of a crime and were awaiting trial because they couldn’t afford to pay cash bail.
Studies have shown the high daily cost to house people in jail. In Harris County alone, where Douglas lives, it costs an average of $57 per day for each individual. The cost spikes to $232 per day for those housed in the jail’s mental health facility.
“Policing in this modern era is on the frontlines of three very important issues. And that’s mental illness, addiction, and poverty,” said Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. “And we’re not going to incarcerate our way out of those issues. We need to make sure that we’re being smart with policy … that we are not using mass incarceration as our one and only response.”
Harris County leaders have found alternatives to reducing the jail population. Rather than charging people with non-violent, low-level crimes—such as trespassing or public intoxication—many of those people are now diverted to centers staffed with physicians, counselors, and staff who can provide treatment and resources that offer more help than a cold jail cell.
The county operates a NeuroPsychiatric Center, which provides around-the-clock crisis evaluation and treatment services; a 24-hour mental health diversion hotline that can assist law enforcement respond to mental health issues; the Houston Recovery Center, which allocates beds and resources for those battling addiction; and the Judge Ed Emmett Mental Health Jail Diversion Center for people struggling with mental illness. The facility provides beds and short-term care for people “whose mental illness, developmental disability, or neurocognitive disorders contributed to their criminal behavior.”
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, Mayor Tim Keller created the Albuquerque Community Safety department. The department will serve alongside the city’s police and fire departments and be staffed with social workers, housing specialists, and violence prevention experts. Keller said the department will respond to 9-1-1 calls in which “a community safety response is more appropriate than a paramedic, firefighter, or armed police officer.”
“It’s time we stop asking officers to do everything and time to get people the help they need instead of sending armed officers to knock on their door,” Keller said in a June statement announcing the department.
In Berkeley, California, city officials are looking at their own drastic changes. City council approved a proposal in July to have unarmed city workers conduct traffic stops rather than armed police officers. Though details of how the plan will be implemented are still being figured out, city council has said it gives them flexibility to redirect funds away from personnel and toward more effective policies.
“For far too long, public safety has been equated with more police,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin.
In Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous county, newly elected district attorney George Gascón has promised broad sweeping reforms, including diverting first-time low-level misdemeanors “into services instead of criminalizing homelessness and poverty.”
“For decades we attached felony consequences to low-level offenses. It foreclosed job & housing opportunities, exacerbated recidivism, crime & homelessness, & created more victims,” Gascón tweeted after being elected.
These reforms are a “monumental moment,” said Walter Katz, vice president of criminal justice for Arnold Ventures. “It’s a reflection of years of hard work that activists and advocates and researchers have put into this—the calls for reform, to end cash bail, to decrease the workloads of police departments, to decrease the reliance on arrest. This did not come out of nowhere; this groundwork has been tilled for years now.”
Katz said that moving forward it’s going to be important to closely watch the data that detail the impacts of these reforms and how they affect public safety.
The reforms don’t always come easy—or as quickly as Sheriff Gonzalez with Harris County would like to see. But he believes they’re important changes to the criminal justice system that can have real impact on people’s lives.
“I think that it really takes being smart on policy and making sure all parts of the system are working together,” Gonzalez said. “Having a more effective system that is fair and just for everybody—for victims of crimes, for survivors, as well as the accused—I think that it’s fundamental to our democracy.”
Harris County’s diversion program made all the difference for Stephen Douglas.Standing before the crowd at the 2019 PERF Conference, Douglas shared his success story. On that September day when a friend called 9-1-1, Douglas was taken to the county’s Diversion Center.
It’s there that Douglas got help and learned of Open Door Mission, a local organization that focuses on helping men overcome addiction and homelessness and provides programs and resources to better their lives.
He said he was welcomed there with “open arms” and used it as an opportunity to change his life. He’s since graduated the program and serves as a volunteer, sharing his story with men who find themselves in a place he knows all too well.
“Without Harris County’s diversion program and Open Door Mission,” he said, “I would have just gotten out of jail and done the same thing until I got caught—again and again and again.”