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Nueces County to apply for grant to establish mental-health public defender's office

Posted at 10:19 PM, Apr 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-21 18:07:42-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — UPDATE (11:58 a.m. Thursday): This story's headline and information have been corrected to reflect that the grant for which the county is applying would establish a Mental Health Public Defender's Office, and not go directly to the jail.

Nueces County commissioners approved a motion Tuesday to apply for a state grant that would create a new public defender's office.

The mental-health public defender's office would specialize in representing people arrested for crimes who, at the very least, have been identified as possibly having mental-health issues.

During the specially-called meeting, Nueces County's 347th District Court Judge Missy Medary broke down how the county jail is currently populated by many inmates — 25 percent — who suffer from and/or have been diagnosed with mental-health issues.

"We need this," Medary said. "This community needs this. These individuals are the most marginalized in our community, and we need to be able to reach out. We need to be able to help them, and we need to be leaders in our state."

Defendants needing a mental-health public defender could be identified by anyone from an arresting officer to a licensed physician.

Large Texas counties such as Harris and Dallas counties already have established such offices, and even counties comparable to Nueces, such as Galveston and Cameron, also have them.

Danice Obregon is one local criminal-defense attorney endorsing the office.

She highlighted a woman she called "Kay," who had 18 arrests. Many of those arrests were dismissed she said, which could be seen as a victory — but isn't.

"The problem is, without addressing the mental health, she's right back in the system with a new charge," she said. "The system is not working for 'Kay,' or for our community. Today 'Kay' is back in jail."

With the early intervention an office like this could bring, Obregon said, mental-health clients could not only begin to get proper treatment, but ultimately, the backlog in general cases — such as the one the court system is currently facing — could begin to be addressed.

The grant money would come from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission and would fund the office, at least in part, for six years.

Two proposals were presented. In both, the mental-health public defender's office would handle anywhere from 95 percent to 100 percent of cases involving people identified as suffering from mental illness.

However, the proposals differed in other ways:

  • the first would ask for $12 million, the office's public defenders also would handle 15 percent of cases involving an indigent person;
  • the second, which is the one the court ultimately approved, requests $14 million and would have the office handle 25 percent of all cases involving indigent people. An example of an indigent person would be someone who is homeless.

Attorney Lisa Greenberg also spoke at Tuesday's meeting.

She told the story of Andres Mushel, a mentally ill client who killed his father in 2017, and set their home on fire.

She said Mushel's parents spent years prior to his father's death trying to get him help.

Mushel's mother eventually contacted Greenberg, who reached out to the Collin County Mental-Health Public Defender's Office. That office, she said, helped her access resources that helped her properly classify Mushel's case in the court system.

He is now receiving treatment at the San Antonio State Hospital where he is now coherent and receiving the proper care.

"I'm hoping that telling you Andy's story matters, so that people like Mrs. Mushel have a place to go," Greenberg said. "Where there's early intervention. Where tragedies like this don't have to happen."

Medary, Obregon and Greenberg all addressed the fact that not only are the defendants affected by the lack of appropriate resources, but families, law enforcement and the community also feel the effects.

"When it becomes a revolving door, it hurts the individual, it hurts families because you can't get any help for individuals or their family members because they can't get any help for their family members that suffer from mental health and it hurts the community," Greenberg said.