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How Austin Lower Crime Courts Help ‘Regular Users’ Experiencing Homelessness

Investigation summary:

For two years, KXAN has explored the growing backlog of people in Texas prisons who need mental rehab. While an advisory committee was primarily focused on finding a state hospital bed for that group, our team took a closer look at the backgrounds of individuals on the waitlist to identify trends that could help. reduce the number of. We found that data on this topic was often hidden or unreliable – a discovery that sparked the promise of change from state leaders. Result “Consequences of Mental Abilities” The project is supported by USC’s Annenberg Health Press Center.

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Out of all the clothing items, Bailey Gray said she changes jeans most often in Downtown Austin Community Court wardrobe. DACC helps its clients who are going through homelessness return to normal, and Gray says jeans are better than sweatpants when they’re looking for work.

“We have reading glasses, which is very important. Often, our customers don’t have reading glasses or the appropriate medical care to get a prescription,” said Gray, DACC’s clinical case manager. “It’s easy to lose things on the street.”

Wardrobe and everyday essentials are just part of the services DACC offers.

The court covers a limited area of ​​Austin – downtown, the West Campus, and parts of east Austin – and its cases cover the lowest crimes – Class C misdemeanors.

The jurisdiction of Downtown Austin Community Court is located in central Austin, stretching from West Campus (purple) to downtown (yellow) and into parts of east Austin (green). The Court hears Class C misdemeanors and works to rehabilitate individuals experiencing homelessness who are repeatedly charged with low-level crimes. (Photo by the City of Austin)

The jurisdiction of the Downtown Austin Community Courthouse is located in central Austin, stretching from the West Campus to downtown and into parts of eastern Austin. The Court hears Class C misdemeanors and works to rehabilitate individuals experiencing homelessness who are repeatedly charged with low-level crimes. (Photo by the City of Austin)

But although DACC’s jurisdiction may be small and its cases relatively small, it is keeping passersby, who frequently experience homelessness and mental illness, from the strict courts. may have an overwhelming impact on the state and local criminal justice systems.

The court’s administrator, Peter Valdez, said DACC is restorative rather than punitive.

“They often refer to us as a restorative justice court, where we focus on supporting repeat offenders and connecting them with services to stop those repeated offenses, ‘ said Valdez.

Courts help people obtain important items to settle in, such as identity cards, birth certificates and hygiene products. It also provides connections with other organizations that can support them, he said.

These small, low-cost tasks may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of the criminal justice system, but they are increasingly recognized by criminal justice professionals as important components of early intervention. Helping a person settle into their lives with clothing and transportation is a lot cheaper and less burdensome for the system – and taxpayers – than dealing with the consequences of More serious crimes could land a person in jail, repeated through rehabilitation.

‘Regular users’

DACC started in 1999 with two case managers. The court now has a 20-person case management unit, Valdez said. These workers spend about three-quarters of their time in the field, contacting and supporting their customers, which may include transporting them to meetings and appointments.

Downtown Austin Community Court case officers join an outreach group that works to connect people experiencing homelessness with stabilization services. (Photo by the City of Austin)

Downtown Austin Community Court case officers join an outreach group that works to connect people experiencing homelessness with stabilization services. (Photo by the City of Austin)

The amount of annual court prosecutions has fallen sharply over the past eight years. Around 2014, Valdez said the court was hearing about 15,000 cases. Last year, the court saw about 700 people, he said.

Part of that drop could be due to changes in policy and a greater focus on “higher crime,” Valdez admitted. DACC is also having an impact.

At its peak, the court had about 300 “regular users” or individuals whose infractions caused them to appear in court frequently. To get that mark, a person must have 25 cases in court and at least one active case in the last two years.

City of Austin data shows that the five highest fees processed by DACC over the past five years have all declined. Changes in city policy have led to a shift in arrests and a focus on higher crimes, rather than misdemeanors handled by DACC, according to city and DACC officials.

By October, the number of regular users had dropped to about 81, Valdez said.

DACC is also part of the city’s homeless outreach team, which includes police, emergency medical services, and staff from Travis County local mental health agency, he say.

NS outreach team visits homeless camps, build trust and find individuals who will accept support. The team then connects them to help, Valdez said.

Connecting homelessness and mental illness

Mental illness, homelessness and the criminal justice system are linked, Valdez and the state hospital leader said. Providing services to pull a person out of homelessness or stabilizing their mental illness can prevent their entry into higher levels of the criminal justice system, where the consequences can be devastating. can become serious.

KXAN has heard stories from individuals experiencing mental illness people stuck in prison, lethargic, stopped eating, took less medication and eventually died.

If a person is charged and found incompetent to stand trial, they are usually taken to a state psychiatric hospital for stabilization before they can continue their case. But the state’s mental hospital system is rife. Mentally incompetent people are now serving months in prison, sometimes more than a year, to get a bed. In October, the state hit a record high, when the number of people on the waiting list exceeded 1,830 people.

The stats in Travis County are clear, where An analysis by KXAN found that as of 2018, approximately 44% of individuals charged with felonies and incompetent to stand trial are also experiencing homelessness.

The sooner a person can get help, says Valdez, the better their chance of avoiding such dire situations.

“It’s important to intervene early, but it’s also about maintenance and helping them maintain that stability,” Valdez said. “Part of the maintenance is getting them into housing because it will be difficult for them to keep up with their medication.”

That early intervention and maintenance can be as simple as a ride to the clinic, or a better pair of pants. Those things may seem “trivial,” says Gray, but for those who haven’t, they can bring real confidence.

“I’m happy to be able to organize (wardrobe) and have it available for people to pick up if they need it,” says Gray. “I’m glad we’re stocked our way. Make your heart feel good. “