The Dallas Morning News
County center not fully utilized
Program offers jail alternative, but many don’t know about it
A new center intended to provide mental health services to those who otherwise could face minor charges and jail time is being underused, largely because many officers don’t know it’s an option.
The Dallas County Deflection Center in southeast Oak Cliff began to admit people in September 2022 as an alternative to jail for those experiencing homelessness and accused of criminal trespassing. As of Feb. 24, the program has admitted 124 people. The 16-bed center has never filled to half capacity.
Doug Denton, executive director of Homeward Bound, the nonprofit running the center, said this is normal for a new program.
“Given some missteps from the beginning about communication with the police departments, I think we are doing quite well,” he said. “If every department brought us one person a day or even a week, we would have been overwhelmed.”
The six-month program intends to steer participants away from the near-capacity Dallas County jail by offering low-level offenders without outstanding warrants an alternative to incarceration. If the person accused of criminal trespassing meets the qualifications, the officer can offer to take them to the center in lieu of booking them into jail.
The program is voluntary, but if the person refuses, they can still be incarcerated. At the center, staff help connect participants with mental and behavioral health services, housing and sometimes reconnect them with family.
But many patrol officers across Dallas County aren’t aware or have been misinformed about the option provided by the center. District Attorney John Creuzot, who pushed to create it, said he wants to see more use of the program the county helped
“If a police officer doesn’t know the options, we have lost the opportunity to get someone the services,” Creuzot said.
Initially, the deflection center was only available for use by Dallas police and Dallas Area Rapid Transit officers. The center wanted to work with Dallas police and DART to get procedures and personnel in place before ramping up to include other agencies, Denton said, but the program was always intended to help all of Dallas County.
Kristin Lowman, a spokesperson for the Dallas Police Department, said staff is working to educate patrol officers about the option provided by the center, but until recently the program’s use has relied on wordof-mouth between officers. Since its opening, Dallas police have brought 76% of those admitted into the center.
By November, the center was open to agencies outside of Dallas police and DART. But Irving police, for example, still thought the center was exclusively for the city of Dallas, Denton said.
“It has opened up to others now, we just haven’t used [it],” Robert Reeves, Irving police’s public information officer, said in an email.
Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown said even her own department until recently believed the center was still solely for Dallas police and DART.
“I feel like it should have been pushed out more,” she said.
In initial months of the program, officers would call and ask what ZIP code the center was located in, Denton said. He didn’t realize officers believed that only homeless people accused of criminal trespassing in that ZIP code qualified.
Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price sees the center as a tool for those who need services beyond what the jail would provide. He said he thought more officers would opt for the center because dropping someone off takes less time than the several hours it takes to book someone into jail.
“I think it’s a viable alternative to jail,” he said. “It sounds good, but they are underutilized.”
Denton said he doesn’t blame anyone for the miscommunication, and reiterated that this is par for the course for a new program.
The deflection center has been at least three years in the making, with financial contributions from the county, state and federal government and private donors.
Dallas County allocated more than $1 million, the North Texas Behavioral Health Authority granted up to $1.2 million per year for short-term housing and triage to appropriate care in the community, and the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance Grant offers $220,000 over three years for a clinical director position and security services.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars streamed in to support the center’s mission, Denton said. Local officials and other notables contributed, including Creuzot, who said he donated $15,000. The Mark Cuban Foundation granted $277,000 for security services, Creuzot said.
Despite the deflection center’s empty beds, officials and Homeward Bound say it’s clear Dallas needs an alternative option to the jail for those with mental health needs and those who are homeless.
The Dallas County Jail is the second-largest provider of mental health services in the state, with 54% of inmates flagged for needing mental or behavioral health services, according to the county’s February data.
As the jail hovers at around 6,100 inmates — an 8% increase between February 2022 and February 2023 — officials are looking for any solution they can find to avoid reaching capacity at 7,408 inmates. The deflection center was intended to reduce the number of homeless people booked into jail.
Before the center opened, 83 homeless people accused of criminal trespassing were booked into jail in August. In January, 52 people who qualified for the center were booked into jail. Denton said he attributes the decreasing number of homeless people booked into the jail for criminal trespassing to the deflection center.
Brown said that even if all 16 beds were used every day, it’s a tiny fraction of the jail’s 6,100 inmates. Almost 11% of people incarcerated in February were reported to be unhoused.
Denton said it’s important for his staff to grow slowly into its role as they learn to handle tough situations. At least three times so far, Denton said, the deflection center sent someone to the hospital who would have been waiting hours to be booked into jail. Denton recalled one woman who was admitted and discovered to be entering a diabetic coma.
“So often what we think are psychiatric issues are really profound health problems that are causing folks to be unresponsive or unreasonably responsive,” he said.
Dallas police are teaching new recruits at the academy about the center, including information on Dallas Deflects in department bulletins. Homeward Bound is giving presentations to agencies around the county, Denton said. The DA’s office is also helping educate police departments.
“It’s important that we’re talking with our people and all shifts, all divisions to make sure that they know that it is an option,” Lowman said.
Price and Creuzot agree that they are willing to give the center more time to grow before deciding whether it has been ineffective, and Lowman said that more officers will use the program as an alternative to jail once more become aware of it as an option.
“We need to do a better job of getting these people there rather than the jail,” Creuzot said. “That’s the point.”