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The QueQue

The QueQue: Heath department ordered to assist suffering inmates, Invasive species get a pass in Texas budget

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Heath department ordered to assist suffering inmates

Not one to roll around in misery all day, the QueQue likes to point out signs of progress. Exhibit One: A new ruling by a Travis County judge last week could force Texas to confront a growing and nagging problem: how to deal with hundreds of mentally ill defendants clogging county jails while they wait for treatment in the state's mental hospitals (see "Criminal Minds," January 4, 2012). By the end of 2011, over 250 so-called "forensic commitments" — defendants with such severe mental illness they've been declared incompetent and unable to participate in their own defense — sat in jail waiting for treatment. Bexar County jail officials said they had 32 such defendants last month. According to the ruling from State District Judge Orlinda Naranjo, over the past two years those defendants have waited on average six months in jail before getting placed in a state hospital.

Naranjo called the current system unconstitutional (one of our favorite words, btw), ordering the Department of State Health Services to begin placing defendants within 21 days of a judge's incompetency order. The judgment stems from a lawsuit Disability Rights Texas filed in 2007. "It's an important victory for the constitutional rights of citizens who often slip through the cracks," said DRT attorney Peter Hofer in a prepared statement, "and a first step towards exposing the issues in Texas' funding of, and system for, treating and trying these individuals."

With state hospitals hovering at or near capacity, it's unclear how the state could feasibly comply with the new order. New slots don't miraculously appear without more money from the Lege, and over the past two years, 400 defendants were waiting at any given time for the state's 800 forensic beds, about 31 percent of total beds in the state hospital system. That leaves the uneasy prospect that the order could force the state to shift more beds to forensic use, stretching resources and beds available for those severe mental illness brought in on civil commitments. DSHS hasn't yet said if it will appeal the decision but spokeswoman Christine Mann said the agency's exploring its options while it waits for a final order from the judge. "The short answer is it's too soon to tell. … The reality of forensic beds is they don't turn over quickly."

Invasive species get a pass in Texas budget

Schools doing the belly-crawl. Volunteer fire departments pinched. Rabies programs running scared. And the latest unsung Texas fail? Underfunding the invasive species fight. A problem? Considering non-native destructive plant and animals species cost an estimated $130 billion nationally each year and several of the worst kind of critters (zebra mussels, cactus moths) have either recently entered Texas or are on their way ... yeah. "Less people, less funding for surveys, it's going to amount to less effective detection and interdiction," Travis Miller, a program leader for soil and crop sciences within Texas A&M's AgriLife Extension Service, told QueQue.

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