A Lock on Mental Health

Mental Health America states that 1.2 million people living with mental illness sit in jail and prison each year, according to an article titled Stepping Up in the Wednesday, October 13, 2021 Augusta Chronicle, written by Josef Papp and staff writer Susan McCord. Vera Institute of Justice, a nationwide nonprofit research and policy organization adds that based on data collected by the federal government on local jails, about 14.5 % of men and 31% of women in jails have a serious mental illness compared to 3.2% and 4.9%, respectively, in the general population. Elizabeth Swavola, director of the jail decarceration initiative at Vera stated in this article that “people with seriousmental illnesses are dramatically over represented in jail populations”. The article outlined the local scope of this problem at the Richmond County jail and the initiatives that are underway to fine tune understanding of the magnitude of the issue and how to tackle it. One serious issue in Georgia is that availability of mental health services is very limited. According to Papp and McCord, the state ranked last in access among the fifty states and DC, according to a 2021 report by Mental Health America. 

Another issue that was considered in dealing with this problem was the use of intercepts, points “in the criminal justice process where an individual could be diverted to mental health resources rather than continuing to cycle from street to jail”. Richmond County is working hard to maintain a robust mental health court, and currently has forty two people with mental illnesses assigned to their program. One of the rate limiting steps for them right now is to really get a handle on the scope of the problem and the needs that currently exist. 

I wanted to share with you what we are doing in Aiken County to address similar problems on this side of the Savannah River. According to Varney Hodge, who helps to coordinate and administer mental health services and mental health court services at the Aiken County Detention Center (ACDC), “Mental health courts were developed in response to the inability of traditional courts and jails to address a defendant’s underlying mental illness, in cases where prior diversion efforts have failed, but the nature of the charge is not so serious that prosecutors are unwilling to relinquish control. Similar to other specialized court systems such as drug courts and veterans’ courts, mental health courts are an alternative to navigating the criminal justice system for people with a mental health disability.” Tamara Smith, Executive Director of Aiken Barnwell Mental Health Center, stated that the mental health court is a partnership with Aiken County government, the Aiken County Probate Court, Solicitor-2nd Judicial Circuit, the Public Defender’s office, SCVRD, ABMHC and the ACDC. 

Angela Little , Associate Judge of Probate in Aiken County, told me that she as quite encouraged by the program in Aiken County thus far. She said that the mental health court helps to find housing if needed, retrains and certifies for job positions, helps participants reconnect with their loved ones, and provides other services as needed. She emphasized that inmates must volunteer for this program, plead guilty to their charges, sign releases of information so that all involved may pool and share information to better help them succeed, and agree to attend court meetings as mandated. Terms of this arrangement may range from six to twenty-four months, said Judge Little. She told me that there have been approximately six people in the program over the last year, and that three more people are being examined as possible good candidates going forward. After starting the conversation and planning for this program almost three years ago, Judge Little says she is as pleased with the interventions it provides as she has ever been about any of her work with the Probate Court. 

Tamara Smith provided further insights into the workings of the mental health court in Aiken County. It reserves space for violent criminals and others for whom incarceration is the only reasonable alternative. It reduces arrests, reduces days spent in jail, cuts down on recidivism and the overall burden on law enforcement, who often need to provide more direct observation, assistance with medications and suicide watches for inmates with mental illness. To be considered for the program, offenders must be charged with a misdemeanor or non-violent felony and have a diagnosable mental illness. They must understand and be able to commit to the program, usually for a year. They must be a resident of Aiken County and not be a threat to the public. The members of the mental health court team must agree that the person is appropriate for the program. The offender must admit guilt and voluntarily enter the program. Mental health services are provided by a mental health professional. The offender must complete community service, pass drug screens and report to the court as required. If the offender does not meet program guidelines, they may face sanctions, including weekends in jail, additional community service, or increased mental health services. Multiple sanctions may result in return to jail to serveout their sentence, and as Judge Little told me, time spent in the mental health court would not count against the time of the sentence needing to be served in that case. 

All of these pieces of the existing mental health court program in Aiken County are designed to screen for people who are likely to be successful in the program and return to being productive citizens, all while treating their mental illness at the same time. It is an exciting and innovative way to provide the services that offenders need in order to minimize incarceration time, maximize training, support and productivity, and put them on a trajectory to success. Let’s hope that the programs in Richmond and Aiken counties can continue to succeed and grow.

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