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Shortage of beds in state mental hospitals delays treatment in North Texas

Hundreds of prisoners in the Dallas County jail are waiting more than two years for a bed in a state mental hospital.

DALLAS — Inside the Dallas County Jail, there are more than 360 prisoners found incompetent to stand trial who are awaiting a bed in a state mental hospital.  

On average, a male prisoner found incompetent to stand trial waits about 795 days to get a bed in a maximum-security state hospital. The wait time for a female prisoner in the same situation is about 230 days.

“The wait is just incredibly long,” said defense attorney Stara Roemer.  

A judge ruled one of her clients incompetent in February 2021. The judge ordered that he be sent to a state mental hospital for treatment. He is still waiting in jail more than 460 days later.  

“There's no end in sight,” Roemer said. “And that's another one of the problems... you have literally no idea when their number’s gonna finally be called.”

WFAA first detailed the lengthy wait times for state hospital beds in 2016, highlighting the case of Thomas Johnson.

Johnson, a former Texas A&M football player, ambushed and hacked to death a White Rock Lake jogger in 2015.

A judge had found the diagnosed schizophrenic incompetent to stand trial and ordered him to be sent to a mental hospital, but there was no available bed for months.

“When there's not enough beds, that's a crisis that I think we all need to be concerned about,” his then-attorney, Jennifer Balido, said in a 2016 interview.

Johnson eventually got a bed in a state mental hospital and eventually stood trial for murder. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2019.

For years, wait times have been lengthy, but state officials say those wait times have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

In 2020, the wait time for a maximum-security bed in Texas was 270 days. It’s now 514 days, state officials said.  

The wait time in 2020 for a minimum-security bed was about 3-and-a-half months. It’s now 230 days, or 7-and-a-half months, according to state officials.

Currently, there are more than 2,300 people waiting for a state hospital bed in county jails across Texas. 

While those prisoners await a bed, it’s left to county taxpayers to pay the bills while they languish in jail.  

“That’s unacceptable,” said Dallas County Commissioner Theresa Daniel. “I don’t care how you cut it.” 

Daniel told WFAA it costs about $67 on average a day for the county to house a prisoner. But if a prisoner needs health care or mental health services, the cost jumps to about $120 a day.  

 “Do the math,” she said. “It’s very expensive.” 

Credit: WFAA-TV
Theresa Daniel

In the Bexar County jail, there are more than 220 prisoners waiting on a state mental hospital bed. That’s almost double the number from a year ago, said Mike Lozito, director of the county’s Office of Criminal Justice Policy, Planning & Programs.  

Lozito said the state is failing in its responsibility to “restore individuals back to competency so they can stand trial.” 

“The person is waiting” for treatment, Lozito said. “Sometimes they’re waiting longer than what their sentence would be...Because of their mental health issues, they're not getting their fair day in court.” 

He says it’s the state that has the responsibility to fix the problem.  

State officials say they have been working to increase the number of beds. Seventy maximum-security beds are being added in Kerrville, and there are plans to build a mental hospital in Dallas with about 25 beds.  

However, that number will come nowhere close to fixing what has been a systematic problem for years, critics say.  

“This is not a good situation for all the counties and it's really putting everybody in a crisis,” Lozito said. 

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