Mental Health Crisis Keeps Murder Case from Going to Trial

Defendent Awaiting Competency Evaluation

LUBBOCK, TX - For the most part, Sheriff Kelly Rowe said Lubbock County has managed to keep it's head above water when it comes to the mental health crisis in Texas.

With an extreme shortage of beds in state mental health hospitals, Lubbock has to rely on private hospitals, like Starcare, and the county jail to provide housing for defendants awaiting trial.

Sheriff Rowe said about 50% of inmates have received some kind of mental health treatment and those with diagnosed with a mental illness can expect to stay in jail seven times longer than an inmate without a mental illness.

"For a lot of reasons," Rowe said. "Primarily due to the fact the U.S. has shifted from being or utilizing an inpatient model of mental health care, to an outpatient model where the funding never really trailed along accordingly, the jails become the De facto mental institution."

For example, Sampson Oguntope was arrested in February 2012. He is accused of killing an 89-year-old Slaton woman and sexually assaulting her home nurse. His trial date was scheduled for January 2018.

A Lubbock County judge found Oguntope incompetent to stand trial and he will need a psychiatric evaluation from a doctor before he can proceed to trial.

"We want people to understand the charges against them," Assistant Criminal District Attorney Ashley Davis said.  "We want them to be able to put on a defense for themselves and be able to actively participate in their defense, and if someone is not competent to stand trial then there is part of that right to fair trial that they are being denied."

Because of the seriousness of Oguntope's crime, the only facility able to accommodate him is in Vernon.

"Some offenses have to go to a maximum security facility," Davis said. "Well the maximum security facility that is available for our area is Vernon and they also have a limited amount of beds and they are accepting offenders from most of north Texas and the panhandle, so that does slow the process down a little bit." 

While he waits, Oguntope has been sitting in the Lubbock County Detention Center.

"If their length of stay is increased," Rowe said. "It's going to cost taxpayers considerably more while we wait for them to get through the system. State hospital beds that are currently available are limited, very limited. In fact we have a significant number of those that are offline right now currently."

Both Sheriff Rowe and Davis said mental health defendants with a case as severe as Oguntope's are limited. Davis said they have about 90 cases on their competency docket and maybe 20% of those cases are felonies, while most are misdemeanors.

Sheriff Rowe sits on several state jail boards. He said the communities with the biggest problems lie in the rural and frontier counties.

"When you are sitting in the middle of central Texas and told your only available bed is in El Paso and you are going to lose one of your few officers that you have to try and transport an individual on a three day, four day trip," Rowe said. "[It] is a daunting challenge and it is what ultimately leads to these tremendously slow periods of time getting these folks through the system."

Sheriff Rowe said his jail once had the ability to treat patients, before an advocacy group shut down that process in the detention center. He said he would like to get it back up and running.

"In-house restoration programs," Rowe said.  "We've got the capability, we have the staff on right now that are fully qualified to do those types of things, but because it is not a good idea to certain groups out there, suddenly we run into road blocks keeping up from doing it, which then puts Lubbock County, as an example, back into sitting on a waiting list with everybody else when we could take our burden off of that list and handle it right here and take care of it."

Sheriff Rowe and Beth Lawson at Starcare have been working with legislator's to get more doctors, beds and funding for state mental health hospitals.

"The legislature is very, very cognizant of these issues," Rowe said. "The Sheriff's in particular since we have the responsibility of the county jails."

"Our legislator," Lawson said, "has put a major investment  in crisis services... What has happened is that we have growth in Texas that has outpaced the investment that we have already made and so I do agree that we have a shortage in Texas, but it's not because anything has been taken away. It's just not kept pace with the growth and exuberance with which people move to Texas."

State Representative Four Price from Amarillo has been in contact with Sheriff Rowe and Lawson. Price has made mental health and criminal justice one of his top priorities.

Price was a member of the House Select Committee on Mental Health, which conducted eight days of hearings from February - September 2016. The hearings included discussions with more than 110 expert witnesses from diverse professionals. 

Read about the committees findings here. The minutes, notes and additional information from the committee meetings can be found here.

Mr. Price will also soon file the Mental Health Criminal Jurisprudence omnibus  bill.


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