El Paso County is moving closer to starting a mental health court for adults in the criminal justice system. Earlier this month, the county approved a $200,000 grant application toward INSPIRE Treatment Court, a treatment program for people with both serious mental illness and substance use disorder.

The 12-month program, an alternative to incarceration, is long overdue, mental health advocates told El Paso Matters. The grant would last a year starting on Sept. 1 and the program would fall under 243rd District Court Judge Selena Solis.

The INSPIRE court – whose acronym stands for Independence, Namaste, Safety, Purposeful, Insightful, Resilience, Empowerment – works with people who have a felony case in the pre-trial and post-plea stages. The goal is to promote recovery and reduce the likelihood of recidivism, the tendency to relapse into behavior that could get them arrested again. The recidivism rate in Texas – the percent of people released from prison who return to prison within three years – hovers above 20%, according to the latest data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The program will prioritize people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depression, District Judge Anna Perez said at an El Paso County Commissioners Court meeting in early February. Perez made the presentation to the commissioners court on behalf of Solis, who was unavailable at the time.

The majority of the budget will go toward the salaries of an accredited mental health professional from Emergence Health Network and a supervision officer to make sure participants follow their treatment plan, which includes counseling and medication. The rest of the budget will go toward resources such as transportation to program appointments and helping participants’ families learn how to become caretakers. 

Perez said the program expects 35 participants the first year, with plans to expand in following years. 

Isidro Torres, executive director of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, El Paso chapter

Mental health court is a problem-solving court because traditional punishment isn’t helpful for offenders, said Isidro Torres, executive director of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, El Paso chapter. People with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than perpetrators, yet are overrepresented in prison, he noted. 

“Mental health conditions are real medical conditions that affect the way we think and our emotions,” Torres said. “It takes treatment and a journey of recovery to get to what we might consider good health.”

More than a dozen counties in Texas have already integrated mental health courts. El Paso runs a mental health court at the juvenile probation level: Project HOPE, a four- to six-month program for youth ages 10 to 17 who’ve been diagnosed with mental illness.

Torres said NAMI works in partnership with El Paso County Juvenile Probation to provide resources to parents trying to support their children. Having these support systems in place can be life changing for the entire family, not just juveniles, he said.

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said diagnosing and identifying treatment in people at a young age helps reduce the chances of them getting in trouble with the law as an adult. 

“People have had a difficult time discerning mental illness from bad behavior,” Samaniego said. “Once you address it as a mental health issue and get them to a therapist instead of a probation officer, it becomes very different.”

Ricardo Samaniego

Samaniego has prior experience as a juvenile probation officer, as well as a clinical therapist in El Paso and New Mexico. Mental health care has long been underfunded in El Paso, especially when it comes to preventative intervention, he said. 

“A lot of people are now realizing the boomerang of the pandemic is coming back to us,” Samaniego said. “The pandemic shook our sense of certainty and something that exacerbates mental health issues is uncertainty.”

El Paso Matters and La Verdad reported in 2022 how the pandemic isolated people with complex conditions, from depression to bipolar disorder. A community still in mourning from the 2019 terrorist attack at Walmart then watched the coronavirus claim more than 3,600 lives countywide.

The county offers various specialty courts, such as veterans court and DWI drug court. The mental health court is the latest in the county’s attempt to address mental health in the criminal justice system. 

In 2022, El Paso County Sheriff’s Office expanded its crisis intervention teams. The program pairs deputies with Emergence Health Network clinicians to respond to calls involving a mental health crisis, with an emphasis on de-escalating tense situations.

Crisis intervention teams have prevented more than 700 people from entering unnecessary incarceration, program leader Lt. Jerome Washington told El Paso Matters. Teams also diverted most of them to outpatient services or mental health facilities instead of unnecessary hospitalization in emergency rooms.

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...