Less than a month into his new assignment representing indigent defendants with mental health problems, Allen Place is treading cautiously down a new trail.
“This is uncharted territory,” Place said. “Nine months from now we will be a lot smarter.”
The Place Law Office, which includes Place’s wife Tonya, also an attorney, has offices in Copperas Cove, Gatesville and Austin.
Under a grant from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, the firm has contracted with the county to handle indigent clients who have been flagged with mental health issues.
“Our mental health services, as a state, aren’t where we would like them to be,” Place said. “There is a tremendous need and the services are not there.”
The combination of poverty and mental illness often results in the person going to jail.
“For a person with a mental health problem, being in jail only exacerbates the problem,” he said. “A jail is not a hospital or a mental health facility. (Jail staff) are not equipped for these cases.”
Dewey Jones, a police officer since 1989, is working with the county pre-trial services office to screen jail inmates for mental illness.
In addition to his years of police experience, Jones has had formal training in mental health screening and identification. From a small office in the county jail, Jones interviews all inmates.
Those flagged by Jones and determined to be indigent by Mike Hull, county pre-trial services director, are assigned to Place if they face misdemeanor or non-capital felony charges.
Last week, Place and Jones toured the eight-bed mental health crisis center that opened in Gatesville in November. The center, operated by Central Counties Services, provides an alternative to jail for Place’s clients. A second phase of the grant project will include a 32-bed mental health crisis respite center, possibly in Copperas Cove.
“It is huge having a roof over their heads while they are being evaluated,” Place said. “That’s a big deal to have that option. Most clients have no vehicle, no home. They aren’t going anywhere.”
While the center is strictly voluntary and residents may leave when they choose, Place said placement in the center may be a condition of a client’s bond. If clients “voluntarily” choose to leave the center, they may be headed back to jail.
“We address the situation with public safety in mind,” he said. “Common sense prevails.”
County Sheriff Johnny Burks and Lt. Rita Thomas, the jail administrator, have urged the county commissioners to move forward to provide a way to keep the mentally ill out of the crowded jail.
“The county jail is at best a temporary holding facility,” Place said. “This program will help the individuals and help the county with the jail crowding.”
Place called the program the beginning of “a new day” in the disposition of cases involving the mentally ill.
“It is a good thing the state is doing these grants,” Place said. “It is the right thing to do.”