Published 4:52 pm Monday, May 15, 2017

The Senate gave unanimous approval to a measure Thursday intended to improve the treatment of individuals with possible mental health issues in county jails. The bill is named after Sandra Bland, who was found dead in her cell of an apparent suicide after spending three days in jail in July of 2015.   An interim study by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee found that 26 people committed suicide in Texas county jails in 2016, which led to immediate reforms in the way people are evaluated for mental health when booked into a county jail. Committee chair and Houston Senator John Whitmire offered a bill Thursday that he believes will continue to improve the response to people facing mental health crises in jail. “When you deny someone their liberty, you have a responsibility to provide for the safety and welfare of that person,” he told his colleagues.

Whitmire noted that even people without mental illnesses can often experience severe anxiety and stress when they end up in jail. For people with known issues, the reaction can be even worse. His bill, SB 1849, would improve training for jail officials in de-escalation techniques when dealing with a person who may have a mental illness.   If a person appears to have a mental health crisis or other issue upon jail intake, officials must notify the presiding magistrate within 12 hours, rather than the 48 hours required under current law. It would also mandate installation of security cameras, where funding allows, in county jail facilities.  The bill would permit cities and counties to develop diversion programs where non-violent offenders with mental health issues or substance abuse problems can go instead of jail.   “This is a mental health awareness and prevention piece of legislation that I think will go a long way toward preventing future tragedies due to confinement in our county jails, ” said Whitmire. Passed with no opposition, the measure now heads to the House.

Also on Thursday, the Senate Education Committee considered the House’s major school finance reform bill, HB 21, but with some significant changes made by the Senate sponsor. Committee chair and Friendswood Senator Larry Taylor is carrying the measure and added concepts from his school choice bill, SB 3. The added language would offer public money for private school tuition, but only for students with disabilities. They could qualify to receive up to 90 percent of the average annual cost to educate a student in a public school for a year.

The bill still contains many of the provisions that passed the House, which aims to begin the process of reforming the way the state pays for public education. “Although HB 21 is not a full-scale overhaul of our current system, the bill does make certain improvements in ridding our system of certain inefficiencies and inequities,” said Taylor. The bill would end some financial streams outside of the standard formula, like the transportation and high school allotments, and put those funds into the main funding formula. For schools still relying on hold-harmless provisions from the 2006 property tax compression, the bill has a mechanism to wean them off of that funding over the next four years. It also increases the basic allotment and increases funding for bilingual education and for students with dyslexia. The small district adjustment penalty in the current funding formula, which means that districts that are smaller than 300 square miles get less funding, would be phased out over six years. Lawmakers don’t have a price tag for the Senate version of the bill yet, but Taylor told members it will be less than the $1.8 billion cost of the bill that passed out of the House.

The Senate will reconvene Monday, May 15 at 2 p.m.