Hogg Foundation Grant Helps El Paso County Cut Costs, Improve Services for Criminal Defendants
August 20, 2010
By Eric Pickhartz
A mental health unit launched by the El Paso County Public Defender’s Office five years ago to represent criminal defendants with mental illness saves taxpayers money, is more efficient and provides better services, according to an evaluation funded by the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.
The unit also benefits criminal defendants diagnosed with a mental health condition because they spend less time in jail, get their cases resolved faster and receive treatment and services during the judicial process. The average length of time in jail was reduced by 24 days, while the average length of time between arrest and case resolution fell by 92 days over a three-year period.
This means the county saves money on attorney fees and incarceration costs, and defendants spend less time in a detention facility that is not designed or equipped to treat mental illness.
“The two numbers that jump out the most are the reduction in the number of days spent in jail by clients, and in the amount of time taken to resolve a case. In cold, hard dollars, the reduction in days spent in jail equaled nearly $1.6 million over three years,” said El Paso County Public Defender Clara Hernandez.
El Paso County was among the first in Texas to adopt this approach. The county formed the mental health unit as a pilot in 2004 to find out if attorneys who receive special training and work closely with mental health professionals can more effectively represent criminal defendants with mental health conditions. The unit originally was staffed by an intake caseworker, a social worker and a handful of lawyers with training in mental health conditions.
In 2005, the Hogg Foundation awarded a three-year, $300,000 grant to the public defender’s office to expand the mental health unit and evaluate its success. Other funders were the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense and the Meadows Foundation.
Today, the mental health unit has evolved to include a mental health chief who works alongside a social worker, a mental health investigator and an administrative assistant. Eight attorneys with mental health expertise are assigned across four trial units to represent defendants with mental illness. Caseworkers screen defendants and refer those who show signs of mental illness to the mental health unit for further evaluation, services and assignment to an attorney with mental health expertise.
“Making the judge and the prosecutor aware of an accused individual’s mental health condition may allow them to consider certain disposition or sentencing options they might not otherwise consider. They are also more likely to release the individual on a pretrial bond if they know the team will continue to monitor the client’s mental health treatment,” Hernandez said.
A faculty-student team from the Legal Psychology Department at the University of Texas at El Paso spent three years evaluating the mental health unit’s performance.
“The team initiated a data collection and management process and stored and analyzed the data to assess the impact of the mental health unit,” said Dr. Harmon M. Hosch, who led the evaluation team. “Mental health services are often unavailable or unaffordable for residents of El Paso. The evaluation showed this approach provides a safety-net for those whose illegal behavior is the product of mental illness.”
The mental health unit also offered a real-life learning environment for those involved in the judicial process and the evaluation. “The mental health unit served as an important source of training and career development for attorneys at the public defender’s office and for graduate student interns from the university,” Hosch said.
Dr. Lynda Frost, director of planning and programs at the Hogg Foundation, served as project liaison.
We recognize that finding new ways to effectively represent defendants with mental health conditions is an important issue, not just in El Paso but in many places,” Frost said. “This seems to be a good approach to the problem, based on the strong evaluation results identified by the university’s research team.”
Most importantly, El Paso County continues to fund the mental health unit in recognition of its success and value to the community. Other public defender offices in Texas have taken note, creating similar programs in other parts of the state, according to Hernandez.
“Ideally, that’s what happens when you evaluate a project like this,” said Frost. “You get good, hard data showing cost savings that convince decision makers this is a better way of doing business.”