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Houston offering low-level offenders a second chance through jail diversion center

Jail diversion center Houston
Posted at 6:23 AM, Dec 21, 2021

The Harris County Sheriff's Department is offering some in Houston a second chance.

The Harris County Mental Health Jail Diversion Center is one of the first jail diversion centers in the country. The center allows deputies a new option — somewhere to take low-level offenders who would otherwise be taken into custody.

Those sent to the diversion center include those picked up for crimes like trespassing or petty theft, which would typically land an offender in jail for a few days, potentially starting a cycle of dysfunctional patterns.

"They'll come back on the street, they'll commit the same thing, and they'll go through the same vicious cycle," Harris County Sheriff's Deputy Stephen Diaz said.

Diaz said the Harris County Mental Health Jail Diversion Center in Houston is finally bringing those cycles to an end.

"No matter what time law enforcement encounters someone, they can be diverted. They can drop them off here," said Wayne Young, the CEO of the Harris County Center for Mental Health.

Since the center opened in 2017, more than 4,200 people have been brought to the 24/7 facility instead of going to jail.

Sixty-five percent of those individuals admitted were homeless, and the diversion program houses individuals for up to 60 hours.

After arriving at the diversion center, registered nurses, psychiatrists, substance abuse counselors and peer support specialists like David Rose establish a one-on-one connection.

"My role here as a peer is to provide some hope, some resiliency, some compassion to people that first come in," Rose said.

Rose can offer that support because he once walked in their shoes. He's seen the impact of the program firsthand.

"If you're experiencing homelessness, or if you're experiencing substance abuse, I have both of those in my background," Rose said. "So, when I come in and start talking to somebody, there's validity in what I'm saying to them because they understand."

But the care and services don't stop at the diversion center.

"Our real goal is to get them to continue to engage in services after they leave the facility," Young said.

In addition to connecting people with needed help and resources, the center will start construction on a 26-unit apartment space next year so people can transition into a home. It's work that's leading to more positive outcomes.

"All of a sudden, to see that light come on and watch those people go in a different direction, I mean, that's huge," Rose said.

Young says studies have shown the center has been proven to reduce arrests among its most troubled visitors.

"If you've been arrested five or more times and got diverted, they were 3.1 times less likely to be booked into jail on a new charge in the next year," Young said.

Young said the jail diversion center is saving Houston money and resources.

"For every dollar we spend on diversion, we avoid $5.45 in criminal justice costs," he said.

Now, other cities across the country are using Harris County's diversion program to create their own models. Atlanta will open a jail diversion center in Fulton County next year, and Dallas will soon launch one of its own.