Prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide unrest of the summer months, local, state, and federal authorities are taking a fresh look at significant reforms to how the criminal justice system engages with those in its charge. One important area, affected by both the aforementioned crises, is the need to address how to maintain and increase access to mental health and rehabilitation programs for those who have contact with the criminal justice system and whose release back into the community is imminent.

A recent key study of people returning to society after a period of incarceration, and the myriad challenges they face, reveals just how much this population’s mental health is affected by trauma of a nature that is much less common in the broader society. The study found that over the course of the first eight months following release from incarceration, 47% had experienced at least one traumatic event, with one in five of those actually losing a loved one to homicide. The consequences of these findings are significant.

Many of these individuals can find work and housing initially after release but struggle to maintain them because of their heavy mental burden. Such studies highlight the importance of permitting mental health therapists to become primary contact points in many emergency calls that are prompted by a person’s behavioral health. Programs like CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets, have teams of counselors, social workers, and paramedics respond to calls in cases such as suicide intervention and overdoses. In Houston, the Stepping Up Initiative program relies upon mental health professionals and advocacy groups when handling those who suffer from these mental or substance use afflictions. A similar pilot program pairing Dallas police with social workers called RIGHT Care has been in operation since 2018 and should soon see expansion citywide.

Access to mental health programs in prisons has been affected by the response to the current pandemic, delaying completion of the programs and thus the release of people otherwise approved for parole or other forms of supervision. As the state parole boards continue to set the criteria for release, the state prison systems, which are currently hamstrung by the disease, are often unable to provide the programs the parole boards require. Many who would otherwise complete pre-release treatment and be released remain behind bars and continue to be unnecessarily exposed to the virus.

Some states have adjusted by setting new policies prioritizing the release of non-violent inmates who are near their release dates, and those deemed especially vulnerable to COVID-19-caused complications. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf’s executive order grants reprieves to such persons, but crucially, requires that anyone being considered for release under the order be vetted by the parole board.

In Texas, 10,500 people have been approved for parole by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, but remain behind bars because COVID-19 has prevented them from finishing their mandated pre-release programs. Advocates have asked that these individuals be allowed to finish the programs at home, rather than being kept in limbo and contributing to the crowding of prisons.

Stakeholders and decision-makers who rightly value public safety should take this into account when setting policy. TDCJ has already made adjustments to allow alternatives to court or parole board ordered residential aftercare programs.

The concurrence of an unprecedented health crisis and a national criminal justice-centered debate gives us an opportunity to develop new ways to deal with the intersection of mental health and criminal justice. New solutions have been made possible by the advent of modern advances, including video reporting for supervision.

Across the country, innovative and evidence-based ways of using resources, whether through community engagement or executive order/agency policy adjustments, are providing a path forward for those leaving or who have recently been released from jails and prisons, without compromising on the need for mental health and rehabilitation support nor the safety of the communities into which these former inmates will reintegrate.