Texas Passes Landmark Law Requiring Treatment Instead Of Jail For Mentally Ill

The Sandra Bland Act mandates county jails divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues toward treatment and requires that independent law enforcement agencies investigate jail deaths.
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    Jeanette Williams places a bouquet of roses at a memorial for Sandra Bland near A&M University, in Prairie View, Texas. (AP/Pat Sullivan)

    Jeanette Williams places a bouquet of roses at a memorial for Sandra Bland near A&M University, in Prairie View, Texas. (AP/Pat Sullivan)

    Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday signed into law a measure that seeks to address the circumstances that led to the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman found dead in a county jail days after being arrested during a routine traffic stop.

    The Sandra Bland Act mandates county jails divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues toward treatment, makes it easier for defendants to receive a personal bond if they have a mental illness or intellectual disability, and requires that independent law enforcement agencies investigate jail deaths. The law takes effect Sept. 1.

    The law’s namesake, a 28-year-old from Illinois, died in the Waller County Jail in 2015. Her arrest followed a lengthy argument between Bland and then-Department of Public Safety Trooper Brian Encinia, which was documented by the officer’s dashboard camera.



    After Bland’s death – which was ruled a suicide – her family, activists and lawmakers swiftly criticized the rural jail’s leadership and Encinia. With a new legislative session a long way away, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards was first to offer a solution, revising the intake screening process of county jail inmates to better identify mental health issues. During the legislative session, state Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston introduced a bill named in honor of Bland. A comprehensive piece of legislation, the bill originally tackled racial profiling during traffic stops, consent searches and counseling for police officers who profiled drivers, in addition to jail reforms.


    Related: Instagram Temporarily Blocks #SandraBland In Attempt To ‘Control Hate Speech’


    That bill didn’t move out of committee because of opposition from law enforcement groups and lawmakers concerned about unfunded mandates. The Senate version of the bill, by state Sen. John Whitmire of Houston, removed much of the language related to encounters with law enforcement (de-escalation training remained) and became a mostly mental health bill, which ultimately passed both chambers without opposition.

    Bland’s family expressed disappointment in the Senate version of the bill, calling it a missed opportunity because it removed language relevant to Bland’s stop.

    The bill Abbott signed Thursday increases public safety, Coleman said in a statement.

    “The Sandra Bland Act will prevent traffic stops from escalating by ensuring that all law enforcement officers receive de-escalation training for all situations as part of their basic training and continuing education,” he said. 


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    • James Wherry

      Sorry, but let’s be honest, here: it’s only “landmark” because it’s Texas. The rest of America long since moved on.

    • Bob Beal

      Don’t think this will change the fact that jails/prisons are Reagan’s version of mental health hospitals.

      • James Wherry

        Not at all, Bob: in the past 40 years, we’ve come a long way to recognizing the need for treatment and at separate facilities. Unfortunately, some people are so dangerous, or are so likely to stop taking their meds and re-offend that we have no choice but to prevent them from re-entering society.

        I wish that was not true. Please don’t hesitate to prove that it does not have to be true, but I’ve been a criminal defense attorney, among many other things.