Bill would pave way for mental health courts

Georgia’s jails house a high percentage of people with psychiatric illnesses, according to sheriffs across the state.

But an under-the-radar bill that’s still alive in the final days of the General Assembly seeks to move more of these people into treatment instead of behind bars.

About a dozen mental health courts exist now in Georgia, but Senate Bill 39 would codify them and make them consistent through the state, and allow pathways for funding.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously and is awaiting a House floor vote.

Its lead sponsor, Sen. Johnny Grant (R-Milledgeville), says the deinstitutionalization of the mental health system in the past 40 years has led to “a much higher percentage of people with mental illness in our jails and prison system.’’

“For many of these people, criminality is not the basic problem,’’ Grant says. “Mental illness is the basic problem.’’

A criminal court can set up a mental health division where an offender could be referred to therapy and other treatment either prior to sentencing or as a part of the sentence. The court, for instance, could make sure the person is taking needed psychiatric medications, Grant says.

The concept works similarly to a drug court. Successful participation in treatment could allow a case to be dismissed against someone, or allow a sentence to be modified or reduced.

“A lot of these folks are fairly chronic in passing through the court system,’’ says Judge Stephen Goss of Dougherty County Superior Court, who supervises mental health and drug courts there. Goss predicts mental health courts will grow in number, in Georgia and nationally.

Mental health courts have reduced recidivism, Goss says. “We have many people who have never been locked up again,’’ he says.

Many of these offenders have committed misdemeanors such as trespassing or disorderly conduct, or nonviolent, low-level felonies precipitated by their mental illness. A large number of the chronic offenders have both a mental illness and a substance abuse problem.

The legislation would generally not allow people accused of felonies such as murder to be diverted to a mental health court, unless it was part of a felon’s re-entry into society after a prison sentence.

The Rome News-Tribune recently reported some Floyd County judges’ reservations about Senate Bill 39. “You have to have full cooperation from law enforcement,’’ Superior Court Chief Judge Walter Matthews told the News-Tribune. ‘’There has to be funding for psychiatrists that are full time and a staff. It is not cheap. I don’t know where the money would come from.’’

And Superior Court Judge Tami Colston said there has to be infrastructure in place for people to receive needed services.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness praises mental health courts. “They increase a person’s chance for recovery and integration back into the community,’’ says Eric Spencer, executive director of NAMI in Georgia. They can save a jurisdiction hundreds of thousands of dollars in the costs of the legal system and incarceration, says Spencer. An accused offender can decide not to be diverted to a mental health court, he says.

Other consumer groups are supportive but with reservations.  “I’m supportive of the idea of having people with mental health challenges not be punished for their mental illness,’’ says Sherry Jenkins Tucker, executive director of the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network. But she also says she opposes forcing people into treatment that they don’t want.

Ellyn Jeager of Mental Health America of Georgia says, “If it’s done well, it’s a good option for some people who have gotten into trouble.’’ She adds, though, that the courts’ success depends on the judges involved and their understanding of treatment.

Goss, the Dougherty County judge, says that mental health courts have produced good outcomes. “They’re not perfect, but we feel we’re making some progress,’’ he says.