St. Mary's Law Journal


The ways in which mental health care and the criminal justice system interact are in desperate need of reform in Texas. The rate of mental illness in Texas is higher than the current state of mental health care can provide for. While state hospitals were once the primary care facilities of those with mental illness, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has taken on that role in the last few decades; and when the criminal justice system becomes entangled with mental health care, it often leads to “unmitigated disaster.” If Texas continues to allow the TDCJ to act as the primary care facility of the mentally ill, the goal of the entire system will fail because successful rehabilitation can never be accomplished.

Current Texas law is not facilitated to provide for mentally ill offenders. While diversion programs and specialty courts are in place to prevent those suffering from mental illness from TDCJ processing, many eligible offenders will never actually obtain the benefits of these programs. For those that slip through the cracks, the insanity defense rarely acts as a safety net, as it has an insurmountable bar in Texas. But perhaps the grossest injustice occurs when it is our Nation’s veterans that fall victim to the clash between mental health and the TDCJ. It starts with the gatekeepers of the system, and as the first point of contact with the mentally ill, law enforcement officers are not properly trained to handle these interactions.

The Honorable Justice Harriet O’Neill best stated the resolution: no one should be deprived of equal justice because of a mental illness, and the TDCJ is no substitute for mental health treatment centers. Requiring law enforcement to undergo specialized training or education in mental health is certainly one answer to the problem. The next is to re-open the mental health hospitals that disappeared during the deinstitutionalization efforts of the 1970s and 1980s. Texas lawmakers must find a balance between punishment and healing, and the systems must work together to reach this resolution.

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St. Mary's University School of Law


William Todd Keller, Jr.