Published 4:53 pm Monday, May 15, 2017

Jail officers would be better trained on how to deal with possible mental health issues in newly incarcerated individuals under a bill approved unanimously by the Senate on Thursday. The bill is intended to improve the treatment of people with mental illness and to prevent people from harming themselves after being booked into a county jail. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee looked at the issue after the high-profile death of Sandra Bland by apparent suicide after spending three days in a cell in 2015 and found that 26 people took their own lives in county jails in 2016. Committee chair and bill author Senator John Whitmire of Houston said when the government arrests someone, they must protect them. “When you deny someone their liberty, you have a responsibility to provide for the safety and welfare of that person,” he said.

His bill, SB 1849, would mandate new training for jail officers that would teach them how to recognize signs of possible mental illness or substance abuse and ways to de-escalate conflicts with people with these problems.   It would also require that a judge be notified of new inmates with possible mental illness within 12 hours, rather than the current 48 hours, and require that county jails install cameras where funding allows. Whitmire believes his bill will save lives. “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,” he said.   The measure will now head to the House for consideration.

As the end of session grows near, the Senate has accelerated the rate of bill passage, approving more than 100 bills in four days this week. Some of those include:

  • SB 1101 by Plano Senator Van Taylor, which would allow doctors to write prescriptions for epinephrine auto-injectors to be kept in stock at child day care centers. This extends a 2015 law that gave the same ability to public schools.
  • SB 1443 by Conroe Senator Brandon Creighton, would require that Lone Star cards display a photo of the beneficiary, in an effort to combat fraud.
  • SB 1942 by Mineola Senator Bryan Hughes, would allow public school teachers with licenses-to-carry to store their guns in their cars while parked on school grounds, provided the weapons remain out of sight and in a locked car or compartment.
  • SB 2094 by Edgewood Senator Bob Hall, which would create a grant program to help counties pay for overtime and other expenses related to sending officers to a four-week ICE certification program in South Carolina
  • SB 195 by Houston Senator Sylvia Garcia, would permit school districts to apply for additional transportation funding to increase safety for kids that have to walk through high crime areas on their way to and from school

Session ends in just a little over two weeks, and Senate bills leaving the chamber face tight deadlines as they must still go through the committee process on the opposite side of the Capitol before they make it to the House floor. As time wears on, the Senate’s focus will likewise be on legislation that has already passed the House. Session ends on Memorial Day, May 29th.

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