Texas Supreme Court advisory
State’s top courts, in historic first step, create a Judicial Commission on Mental Health
In a hearing before the two highest Texas courts, onetime juvenile offender Angel Carroll from Williamson County testified about a justice system that did not know how to treat her mental illness – until a court-appointed attorney ad litem trained to recognize mental issues listened and intervened.
“While I am a junior at Texas Tech studying communications studies and social work,” she told the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals, “statistically I’m supposed to be in prison, on drugs, homeless or dead.”
Carroll’s testimony in the hearing in January, touted as the first-ever joint session by the two courts, was among 20 perspectives advocating a statewide commission as a foundation for collaboration among judges, policymakers and mental-health experts.
The Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals jointly created the Judicial Commission on Mental Health on Tuesday. Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Barbara Hervey and Supreme Court Justice Jeff Brown will initially serve as the commission’s co-chairs. Justice Bill Boyce of Houston’s 14th Court of Appeals will initially be vice-chair.
At the hearing Angel Carroll represented hope and despair. Sexually and emotionally abused at 14, suffering anxiety and depression at 15, misdiagnosed and prescribed an “unnecessary” medication, she said she was labeled a troublemaker and aggressive. “They said I lacked motivation, had uncontrollable anger and had an utter disdain for authority figures.
“As an adult I’ve often wondered how many times I could have avoided being sent to jail, detention, being on probation, if someone only knew what I was going through and I could have received proper treatment.”
The joint hearing followed recommendations in the Texas Judicial Council’s 2016 Mental Health Committee Report.
Of 27 million people in Texas, as many as 1 million adults experience serious mental illness with perhaps half suffering serious and persistent mental illness. About 500,000 children 17 or younger have severe emotional disturbance. An estimated 1.6 million adult Texans and 181,000 children from 12 to 17 have substance-use disorders that frequently accompany mental illness and, as with all involved, frequently finds them in jail, hospital emergency rooms, the criminal-justice system and in child-protective services.
Another witness, Adrienne Kennedy of Austin, told of a son whose delusions spiraled out of control and left him eventually unwilling to be treated, either for his mental illness or insulin-dependent diabetes. In two manic episodes he fired pistols in a movie theater and near a hospital in central Austin. His troubles eventually forced Kennedy and her husband to refinance a house and empty retirement for hundreds of thousands of dollars for treatment and for charges against him in state and federal criminal courts. He died in 2016 at 41.
“A broken system and a broken brain are a terrible combination,” she told the hearing.
Kennedy, active in the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and witnesses whose views encompass medical, psychiatric and law-enforcement expertise, as well as many with street-level experience, commended the proposal for a mental-health commission.
Law-enforcement officers in Houston and Harris County respond to calls involving mental-health problems on average every 15 minutes, Harris County Sheriff’s Major Mike Lee said. And mental-health “crises” force nearly seven of 10 events SWAT responders answer.
“We often think of mental illness as an invisible disease,” Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht said, “but its effects can be seen in our courts as Texans with these challenges find themselves in every part of the justice system.”
“Courts have an obligation to play an active role in expanding the state’s capacity to respond,” Presiding Judge Sharon Keller said.
The new joint commission will be charged with:
· Strategic planning for strengthening courts and the administration of justice in confronting and helping treat mental-health problems among Texans.
· Identifying and assessing current and future needs for courts to be more effective in working with Texans with mental illness.
· Promoting effective practices and programs for working with the mentally ill.
· Improving collaboration and communication among courts and people working in and for the mental-health system.
· Working to increase resources and funding for effective and efficient use of available judicial resources.
· Promoting appropriate judicial training regarding mental-health needs, systems and services.
· Establishing a model, based on collaboration, that will continue judicial improvements beyond the tenures of individual commission members.
The commission will have at least 14 members, to be appointed initially by the courts for two-year terms and representing the judiciary; juvenile, criminal and child-protection systems; business and legal communities; representatives of foundations or organizations with a substantial interest in mental-health matters; and other state and local leaders who have demonstrated a commitment to mental-health matters affecting Texans. The governor, the lieutenant governor and speaker of the Texas House of Representatives have been invited to appoint ex-officio members.
Jessica M. Arguijo
Supreme Court Children’s Commission
Judicial Commission in Mental Health