2021 Legislation: Reforms Related to Court Procedures

The court process can be incredibly daunting and challenging to maneuver. People who may fail to appear for their court case can be arrested and incarcerated at taxpayer expense; a text reminder program for scheduled court hearings can improve appearance rates and reduce unnecessary policing and confinement costs. Separately, defendants with a mental illness or intellectual disability should have access to appropriate treatment or services, outside of the system whenever possible, and should similarly have access to supports and medications that will ensure they are stabilized and can resolve their case or discharge their sentence as quickly as possible.

HB 4293 (Authors: Hinojosa, Krause, Moody, Leach, Jessica González | Sponsor: Zaffirini), Relating to the creation of a court reminder program for criminal defendants. By September 1, 2022, the Office of Court Administration (OCA) must develop a court reminder program with legislatively appropriated funds that will enable each county to send a text message to notify defendants of scheduled criminal court appearances. Among other things, the program must be available to each county at no cost, provide reminders for each court appearance for people with technological capability who have provided their phone number, document each occurrence of a defendant receiving a reminder, document the number of defendants who fail to appear at scheduled court appearances after being sent one or more reminders, and include the technological capability, at the discretion of the local administrative judge, to provide additional information to defendants concerning scheduled court appearances (e.g., the location of the court appearance, available transportation options, and procedures for defendants who are unable to attend court appearances). The program must also identify defendants who lack access to devices with technological capability to receive reminders, and provide one or more publicly available Internet websites through which defendants may request reminders.

Justices of justice courts – as well as judges of county, statutory county, and district courts with jurisdiction over criminal cases – can join the state’s court reminder program or develop a county program that meets the state program’s requirements.

The OCA and judges can partner with municipalities and local law enforcement agencies to allow individuals to receive reminders of scheduled court appearances if a peace officer issues a citation and releases them, as well as allow defendants in municipal court to receive reminders of scheduled court appearances. Any partnering municipality must pay all costs of sending reminders to municipal defendants. Signed by the Governor; effective on 9/1/2021


SB 49 (Author: Zaffirini | Sponsor: Murr), Relating to procedures regarding defendants who are or may be persons with a mental illness or intellectual disability. 

This bill revises pretrial and hearing procedures and certain programs relating to individuals with a mental illness or intellectual disability. Under current law, within 12 hours of a sheriff or municipal jailer taking custody of a person reasonably believed to have a mental illness or intellectual disability, the sheriff or jailer must notify the magistrate, who must in turn order a service provider or qualified expert to interview the person, collect information, and provide a written report to the magistrate. Per this bill, the magistrate is not required to order the interview and information collection if the person is no longer in custody. Also per this bill, if a written report is generated, it must include a description of the procedures used in the interview and information collection, as well as the expert’s findings pertaining to whether the person has a mental illness or intellectual disability, whether the person may be incompetent to stand trial and should undergo a complete competency examination, and any recommended treatment or service. Further, this report must be provided to the sheriff or other person responsible for the person’s medical records while they are jailed, as well as to any personal bond office in that county or to the director of the office or department responsible for supervising the person while they are released on bail and receiving treatment or services as a condition of bail.

Additionally, in regard to release on a personal bond, an individual is not required to make the standard oath – pertaining to appearing at court or paying a financial sum for failing to appear – if the court determines that they have a mental illness or intellectual disability, if they were released per statute permitting personal bond for defendants with a mental illness or intellectual disability, or if they were found incompetent to stand trial.

For individuals who are deemed incompetent to stand trial and either released on bail or not released subject to an initial competency restoration period, that period must begin on: (1) the date that person is ordered to participate in an outpatient competency restoration program or committed to a mental health facility, residential care facility, or jail-based competency restoration program; or (2) the date competency restoration services actually begin – whichever date is later. On the request of a facility or program provider, the court can enter an order extending the initial restoration period for an additional 60 days, to begin on the date the court enters the order or the date that services actually begin – whichever date is later.

Separately, this bill requires the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) – rather than the Department of State Health Services – to implement a jail-based competency restoration pilot program, through which HHSC must contract with a provider of jail-based competency restoration services. Such a provider must be a local mental health authority or local behavioral health authority in good standing with HHSC and must contract with a county or counties to develop and implement the jail-based program. The program must provide competency restoration services through licensed or qualified mental health professionals, operate in the jail in a designated space separate from the general population, ensure coordination of general health care, provide mental health treatment and substance use disorder treatment as necessary, and supply clinically appropriate psychoactive medications.

For either a jail-based competency restoration pilot program or established program, the provider’s psychiatrist or psychologist must evaluate the person’s competency and report to the court at least 15 days before the initial restoration period is set to end. If the psychiatrist or psychologist determines that a person’s competency has not been restored within 60 days, the jail-based competency restoration program must continue to provide services unless it receives notice that space at a facility or outpatient competency restoration program appropriate for the person is available, and: (1) for a person charged with a felony, at least 45 days are remaining in the initial restoration period, or (2) for a person charged with a felony or a misdemeanor, an extension has been ordered and at least 45 days are remaining under the extension order. On receipt of such a notice, the person must be transferred to the appropriate mental health facility, residential care facility, or outpatient competency restoration program for the remainder of the restoration period, including any extension if one had not previously been ordered. If the person is not transferred, and if the psychiatrist or psychologist determines that the person has not been restored to competency by the end of the period, the person must be returned to the court for further proceedings. For a person charged with a misdemeanor, the court can proceed with a civil commitment hearing, release the person on bail, or dismiss the charges. The court retains the authority to order a person’s transfer to an outpatient competency restoration program if the person is not a danger to others and may be safely treated on an outpatient basis with the objective of attaining competency to stand trial.

Regarding a person who has been transferred from a maximum-security unit to any other facility following a civil commitment placement: the person, the facility where the person is committed, or the prosecuting attorney can request that the court modify the order for inpatient treatment or residential care and instead order the person to participate in an outpatient treatment program. If the facility makes the request, the court must hold a hearing within 14 days to determine if the order should be modified; if the person or prosecuting attorney make the request, the court has 14 days to grant or deny the request, or hold a hearing to determine if the order should be modified. A court is not required to hold any hearing unless the request and any supporting materials provide a basis for believing that modification of the order may be appropriate. When a court does receive a request to modify an order, it must require the local mental health authority or local behavioral health authority to submit a statement, prior to any hearing, regarding whether treatment and supervision can be safely and effectively provided on an outpatient basis, and whether appropriate outpatient mental health services are available to the person. Furthermore, if the facility where the person is committed believes that the person has a mental illness and meets the criteria for court-ordered outpatient mental health services, the facility must provide the court, before any hearing, with a certificate of medical examination for mental illness stating that the person meets the criteria for court-ordered outpatient mental health services. The court must rule on a request for order modification as soon as practicable after a hearing, but within 14 days of the request at the latest. An outpatient treatment program cannot refuse to accept a court-ordered placement on the grounds that criminal charges against the person are pending.

By December 1, 2021, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards must adopt rules and procedures establishing minimum standards regarding the continuity of prescription medications for the care and treatment of confined individuals. The rules and procedures must require that a person with a mental illness be provided with each prescription medication that a qualified medical or mental health professional determines is necessary for their care, treatment, or stabilization. Signed by the Governor; effective on 9/1/2021

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