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Tarrant commissioners OK funding for court software to identify mental health issues

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - 5/21/2024

Tarrant County commissioners Tuesday unanimously approved to fund an alert system to aid magistrates in identifying defendants who suffer from mental illness or intellectual disabilities.

The software will be designed to be integrated with other TechShare court case management systems already in use by the county and will aim to ensure compliance with a state criminal code statute that requires early identification of such individuals.

The Texas Criminal Code of Procedures states that a sheriff or municipal jailer must notify a magistrate of a defendant suspected of having mental illness or an intellectual disability in written or electronic form no later than 12 hours after an individual has been put in custody.

The program will cost $172,500, which will be due at the moment the program is turned in to the county, which is expected before the end of November, according to Tarrant County Chief Information Officer André Mendes.

When recommending that county commissioners vote to approve the alert system, Mendes said that the county had addressed concerns that it receive guarantees against cost overages voiced at the previous Commissioners Court session.

Approval of the alert system was originally on the agenda for the previous session, when county commissioners voted to mark May as Mental Health Awareness Month.

Since then, Mendes’ office renegotiated the payment terms to allow for this payment upon delivery, “so as to dramatically reduce the risk to the county,” he said at Tuesday’s session. His office also inserted provisions that any unforeseen overages come out of the 2025 TechShare maintenance and operations budget.

County Judge Tim O’Hare asked for confirmation before voting that “we pay for nothing until the product is delivered to our specifications,” to which Mendes responded in the affirmative.

The commissioners’ concerns originated in the court case management system known as TechShare.Court, which launched in May of last year after years of delays and racking up a price tag of over $28 million.

The TechShare.Court system was created in 2011 by the Texas Conference of Urban Counties, a nonprofit organization formed of 34 counties that represent nearly 80% of the state’s population. The idea was to create an online court management system that could be marketed to other counties.

The Texas Conference of Urban Counties did not respond to a request for comment.

Mendes told the Star-Telegram after speaking at Tuesday’s session that the TechShare.Court program is “doing quite well” since its launch last year and that Tarrant County taxpayers can count on the mental health alert system to function properly as well.

“Well, when it’s completed, I believe so,” he said. “You have to understand when it comes to software development, especially in replacing a mainframe, things are not always as easy as one would expect.”

The alert system is to feature a “robust search capability” that allows cases to be searched by name, date, court and the status of the individual’s referral, among other identifiers, according to documentation provided by the county.

Fort Worth resident Reed Bilz told commissioners on Tuesday that the program will “relieve suffering and save lives of a vulnerable population that shouldn’t be in our jail in the first place.”

Anything that “even slightly enhances” the county’s ability to manage individuals with mental illness would be an improvement, Bilz said, referring to the in-custody death of Anthony Johnson Jr. in April. Johnson suffered from schizophrenia.

“There was and is no doubt that such improvement is critically needed immediately for our criminal justice system,” she said.

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