El Paso district attorney candidates focus on mental health ahead of primary

All three Democratic candidates running to be the next district attorney in El Paso have emphasized on the campaign trail the need to improve how the criminal justice system treats people experiencing mental illness. 

But as the campaign heats up ahead of the March 5 primary election, they each attempted to contrast themselves from their opponents during a forum on Jan. 31 about mental health within the criminal justice system. The forum was jointly held by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and El Paso Matters. 

Bill Hicks, a Republican who was appointed DA by Gov. Greg Abbott in December 2022, will stand for election in November against the winner of the Democratic primary

Early voting for the March 5 primary begins Feb. 20. Running in the Democratic primary are Nancy Casas, 49; James Montoya, 33; and Alma Trejo, 59.

Trejo served as judge for the El Paso County Criminal Court No. 1 from 2002 until she retired last fall to run for DA. One of her main plans, she said, is to set up a specialized unit to handle cases involving offenders with mental health issues. She also said she wants to establish numerous “diversion avenues” to help people avoid jail if possible. 

“When I was a misdemeanor prosecutor, one of the options that we had back then was we could dismiss the case if it was a low-risk case and send them to the psych center for a 72-hour evaluation to stabilize them. And sometimes that’s the goal,” Trejo said. 

“I don’t want to criminalize people with (mental health issues) just the way I don’t want to criminalize anybody with a substance abuse problem,” she said. 

Montoya, an El Paso County public defender, however, said the next district attorney must solve a staffing shortage at the office before they can take on any new initiatives, such as a mental health unit. 

“The number one goal is recruiting more staff,” Montoya, 33, said. “We can talk about all the plans, (but) they’re pie in the sky – a mental health unit – until we get more folks. They barely have people covering the courts day-to-day.”

Montoya has maintained that there are a dozen-plus lawyers who would go work for him at the District Attorney’s Office if he’s elected. 

In an interview last month with El Paso Matters, Hicks said former DA Yvonne Rosales fired nearly half the attorneys in the DA’s office when she entered office in 2020. Hicks said there were 60 lawyers working in the office when he arrived, and he’s increased that to nearly 80 lawyers since Abbott appointed him. The office is meant to be staffed with 90 attorneys, Hicks said.

“Right now, there are vacancies,” Trejo said of the DAs office. “I have no doubt that if I’m elected, I have the reputation out there to bring a lot of people back. So that’s something that right now, I’m not too worried about.”

“A mental health unit – I don’t consider it a pie in the sky,” added Trejo, who has occasionally sparred with Montoya during recent campaign events. “I think it’s something that’s been needed.”

Casas, a former assistant district attorney who’s currently an assistant county attorney, emphasized throughout the forum that the next district attorney needs to focus on collaboration, especially with other judicial and law enforcement agencies.

“I think that there’s a breakdown between the district attorney’s office and, like, the county attorney’s office in talking between ‘What are the cases that we have and how can we work together?’” Casas said. 

The El Paso Police Department and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office should open lines of communication and have someone on hand to answer prosecutors’ questions over the phone, Casas said.  

“We can at least start there,” Casas said. 

Fundraising Race

Trejo’s campaign last month gained some fundraising momentum after she trailed her opponents in political contributions in 2023. Trejo in January brought in $10,700 from 15 donations – each over $700 on average, according to her Feb. 5 filing. 

Among her donors was Joe Spencer, a defense attorney representing the suspect in the 2019 Walmart shooting in the state’s death penalty case. Spencer contributed $500 to Trejo’s campaign. Juan Mimbela, owner of the construction firm Mimbela Contractors, donated $2,000, and the Meza Lozano Law Firm gave Trejo $3,000. Trejo raised about $18,600 last year and took out a $10,000 loan. As of Jan. 25, she held nearly $9,800 in cash. 

For his part, Montoya raised $6,455 in January, and he still had more than $49,300 in cash as of Jan. 25. He received $1,000 from businessman Ted Houghton and $750 from Democratic State Rep. Claudia Ordaz. 

Montoya received $53,000 in political contributions in 2023 – more than any of his opponents – and he also took out loans totaling $40,000 last year to fund the campaign. 

Casas, meanwhile, saw a slowdown in fundraising last month, when she raised just under $1,500. Casas raised $39,000 last year, and she outspent her opponents in 2023 with more than $51,700 in expenditures last year. But in January, Casas’ campaign spent just $521. She still had $14,250 left as of Jan. 25.

Trejo and Montoya’s campaign have upped their spending significantly as the primary election approaches. After she spent $28,000 on her campaign in 2023, Trejo spent more than $43,700 in January alone – and nearly $40,000 of that from her own personal funds. She used almost all of that cash to pay for sign printing and advertising expenses. 

Montoya reported $28,700 in political expenditures in January – including $25,000 to print and mail signs – after he spent $26,000 on his campaign last year.

Hicks, 54, was not required to also file a campaign finance report in January because he’s unopposed in the Republican primary race. Last year, Hicks generated just under $11,300 from 39 donations, and he spent about $8,850 in political expenditures in 2023.

Mental health and the law

At the forum last week, the three democratic candidates debated how to best prevent people experiencing mental health issues from languishing in the county jail, but without unnecessarily releasing potentially dangerous criminals. 

“When it comes to misdemeanor offenders who are found incompetent, I can tell you that they basically just leave them in the county jail until they time out,” Trejo said.

“We are now moving on to jail-based competency restoration. That is going to be amazing,” Trejo said. “What’s going to happen now, instead of these misdemeanor offenders that have been found incompetent that are just sitting there, they will now be receiving competency restoration services.” 

An offender is found incompetent if they do not have ”a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against the person” or an ability to consult with the person’s lawyer, according to the Texas criminal code

The goals of competency restoration are to divert people from the criminal justice system, provide quality mental health treatment and reintegrate people into their community. Services can include seeing a psychiatrist and potentially receiving medication, or treatment for things such as substance abuse disorder, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Department. 

Last year, 911 people received jail based competency restoration services in Texas, and 434 individuals – 48% – regained competency in an average of 60 days. But the state’s JBCR service wasn’t offered in El Paso, according to HHS.

Montoya, however, said more low-level offenders should receive outpatient competency restoration – meaning outside the jail. 

Last year, 587 people received outpatient competency restoration services in Texas, and 128 of those people, or 26%, regained competency in 104 days on average, according to HHS. This year, Emergence Health Network – which provides outpatient competency restoration OCR services in El Paso –  has a goal of providing the service to 41 individuals

“Unless someone has a very dangerous misdemeanor or a violent misdemeanor, there is no reason for them to remain in the custody of the El Paso County jail,” Montoya said.  

Trejo countered, saying expanding outpatient treatment of offenders with mental health issues can come with risks. 

“There’s certain situations, as a misdemeanor judge, that I can tell you that I would let people out on (outpatient competency restoration), and they’d either escape or they’d go back and stalk the witnesses or their victims,” Trejo said.  “That’s why some people stay in jail. It’s not because we just want to.”

Montoya, like Trejo, said he does support the creation of a mental health unit once the DAs office is fully staffed. He also said the office could use a social worker “to help educate the lawyers about the services that are available” for defendants. 

“One of the things that I have been able to see as a public defender is we have social workers on staff that are dedicated to assisting our clients to match up with the services that they need,” he said. “I don’t see any reason why the DAs office itself couldn’t have a social worker.”

For Casas, simply improving communication among law enforcement and prosecutors will result in better outcomes for people experiencing mental health problems. 

She described situations where a prosecutor in the wee hours of the morning may hear from police about an incident involving mental illness. But without established procedures and resources to help someone in the midst of a mental crisis, people get needlessly locked up, she said. 

“We’re there at three o’clock in the morning answering these phone calls when the police are (saying) ‘You know what, we’re here in this crisis mode.’ It was an assault that happened, what do we do? But also understand that it’s somebody who is having a meltdown,” Casas said. 

“And so we need to use those resources … in a way that is more efficient that doesn’t just put everybody in jail at three o’clock in the morning.”

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