Attacks involving homeless suspects show gaps in criminal justice system

Since October, there have been three separate violent attacks in and around the downtown Austin area, involving homeless suspects with prior criminal history. 
“A particular case comes to our attention and we're all like, ‘How did that happen? Why did that happen? Why didn't they do better?’ But we focus on that individual case and we don't ask ourselves, ‘How did the system allow this to happen? How did we not provide the right resources to prevent this from happening?’” said Bradley Hargis, deputy director of the Capital Area Private Defender Service which represents indigent clients in court.   

Police arrested 34-year-old Raeshala Morris in late January after they said she admitted to stabbing five people in downtown Austin. Morris had four previous convictions in Travis County since 2019: theft, interfering with public duties, assault and assault on a peace officer. Her longest jail sentence was 90 days. She served about half of that and was released just nine days before the stabbing spree happened.

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“The victim, at this point, said she was standing outside on the sidewalk when the suspect came up and just struck her from behind,” said Austin police chief Brian Manley following the assault. 
In early January, police responded to a double stabbing at a Freebirds World Burrito on South Congress. One of the victims, 34-year-old Johnathan Aguilar, died from his injuries. 

The suspect in that case was 27-year-old Dylan Woodburn. He died after jumping off the roof of the Freebirds building. He previously faced several drug charges and a charge for terroristic threat out of Harris County. Woodburn was also charged with burglary in Travis County and released from jail just three weeks before the stabbing at Freebirds. 

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"There were no words that were spoken before the attack took place. It was just a violent, unprovoked attack by the suspect," said Det. Jeff Greenwalt following the attack. 

39-year-old Timothy Mitchell was arrested and convicted after attacking a woman on the Congress Avenue bridge in October. He also beat up a man who stopped to help the woman get away. 

“I got stitches on the side of my head, on my lip and contusions on my skull, and my ear was all swollen, black and blue,” said Mark Dolan, the victim who stepped in to save the woman being attacked. 

Mitchell has more than 25 prior convictions in Travis County since 2007: 15 for trespassing, three drug-related, two assaults, one attempted assault, one burglary, one indecent exposure, and three thefts. For each crime, he was released in less than a year's time. His latest assault occurred just three days after he was released from jail on a burglary charge. 

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That attack landed him a 200-day sentence. The Travis County Sheriff's Office said Mitchell served 85 days of that and was released with credit for manual labor. Prosecutors said Mitchell has always refused treatment, instead opting for jail time. That's something officers with the Homeless Outreach Street Team deal with often 

“There's a lot of people that do decline and it gets to a point where they don't have a choice, that they do become a danger to themselves,” said senior officer Shelley Borton. 


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Why can't the court system force treatment on mentally ill people who are constantly winding up back in jail? 

“The court system was never really set up to be a delivery of mental health services. The jail has become the largest mental health hospital, or provider, in Travis County, but it wasn't really intended to be that,” Hargis said.  

Hargis said even if someone is found not guilty by reason of insanity, it's possible they will never get help from a mental health hospital. After all, even if the person meets the strict definition of insanity, their hospitalization cannot exceed the maximum punishment for their charges. 

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“We have a real shortage of hospital beds and, depending on the person's need, the more violent the offense, the fewer hospitals treat that person and so, therefore, the longer the wait can be,” said Hargis. 

As of October 2019, Texas Health and Human Services reported 412 people were waiting to be admitted to the non-maximum security section of the forensic state hospital. On average, they waited 57 days before a bed was available. The wait for a maximum security bed is even worse. There, 488 people were waiting an average of 308 days for a bed. 

“We have problems with not enough spaces and not enough resources and hospitalization, but building more hospitals alone isn't the answer,” Hargis said.  

Hargis said the biggest gap in the system currently is a continuum of care once offenders are released. 

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“It really is that missing next step that leads a lot of clients into chronic homelessness, interaction with the justice system, because they don't have a place to go that isn't the jail, isn't the emergency room and isn't a brief stay at a hospital to be stabilized. It's really that long-term care that we're lacking in our society,” said Hargis.  

Although service providers agree a large number of homeless people need help beyond a place to stay, Hargis said it's important to remember most of them are harmless.

RELATED: APD: Small number of violent crimes downtown involve homeless people

“We know that over 80 percent of individuals who are experiencing homelessness also have a co-occurring disorder, which is what we call individuals with a mental illness and a substance use condition,” said Darilynn Cardona-Beiler, director of adult behavioral systems for Integral Care.  

“The vast majority of homeless and people suffering from mental health are not violent. That is the part that gets our attention in the headlines, but that is absolutely not the majority of people you see every day,” Hargis said.