In my time representing Texas, I’ve found that bringing proven solutions from our state to Washington has a positive impact on the entire nation. So when considering how to fix our broken mental health system, it only made sense to first look to the reforms enacted right here at home.
More than a decade ago, Bexar County began implementing serious changes to care for the mentally ill and keep its citizens safe. The reforms expanded training for mental health and law enforcement professionals, established health treatment options and post-trial services, and importantly, focused on a collaborative approach that diverted mentally ill individuals to treatment instead of prison. As a result, overcrowded jails have been reduced in size, taxpayers’ dollars have been saved and lives have been changed for the better.
Last year, I had the opportunity to witness firsthand just one example of this success story in action. I visited the Center forHealth Care Services’ Restoration Center in San Antonio, which is an integrated mental health service center that is now the first stop for police when they have arrested someone who is mentally ill. Through a partnership with Bexar County, the Restoration Center provides support to mentally ill offenders, such as substance abuse treatment programs and job training, to help them recover, and keep them from becoming “frequent fliers” through the criminal justice system. The Center for Health Care Services also partners with nonprofits like Haven for Hope to reduce the broader causes of homelessness in the San Antonio community, giving individuals the hand they need to lead productive lives.
It’s clear to me that the Bexar County model to restore the lives of those struggling with mental illness deserves national attention and commendation. And now it’s time to bring some of these reforms to the rest of the country.
Soon the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee will have an opportunity to highlight legislation I’ve introduced — the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act — that takes some of the lessons learned in Bexar County to the national level. Like the reforms implemented 10 years ago, this legislation is a significant step forward that will help the mentally ill get the treatment they need and equip our nation’s law enforcement officials with tools to keep our communities safe.
I’m excited that the committee will hear testimony from Bexar County’s own Sheriff Susan Pamerleau. Sheriff Pamerleau is a longtime advocate of sensible mental health reforms that not only increase safety in our communities, but also help those struggling with mental illness. I look forward to the committee hearing her guidance, and listening to her tell the story of how Bexar County has become a national leader in effective mental health care.
Importantly, the legislation I’ve introduced also takes a page out of the Bexar County playbook by addressing the limited capacity the criminal justice system has to respond to those with mental illness. The Mental Health and Safe Communities Act would help bridge this gap by targeting existing funds for training, assessment and treatment for those struggling with mental illness in the justice system. In this way, my bill would promote efforts to help redirect mentally ill offenders from repeatedly landing in prison and into an environment that can better meet their needs.
The nation can learn a great deal from the hard work of Sheriff Pamerleau and the folks in Bexar County. I know that my colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee will feel similarly after hearing her testimony. Bexar County’s successful approach of focusing on treatment of the mentally ill, rather than incarceration, makes it a model for state and local governments across the nation. To put it simply, it can be done, and San Antonio gets it right.
Now Congress should follow their lead.
John Cornyn is the senior U.S. senator from Texas.