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Posted: April 6, 2013 7:32 p.m.

Mental health court will help inmates

Some people with schizophrenia, depression and bipolar and anxiety disorders see the world in a fundamentally different way and when they lose touch with reality and experience delusions, they can act out in ways that results in them ending up in jail.

That’s an unsatisfying verdict for judges, attorneys and jail staff because these people often aren’t fully aware of what they’re doing or why they’re acting out. Equally frustrating is the fact that these people will often repeatedly end up in jail because they don’t receive regular treatment.

Newton County hopes its new mental health court will finally provide a solution to this frustrating process and benefit the public at the same time.

“Judges, attorneys and jail staff regularly interact with individuals who are in jail because there is no system in place to coordinate their supervision and the treatment of their mental illness,” said Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn, who will oversee the new court. “By developing an individualized treatment plan for each participant, they can function safely in the community and be less likely to return to jail. As judges, these individuals appear before us each week, and we are frustrated because we currently do not have this sentencing alternative.”

The court, which will officially be called the Newton County Resource Court, is set to begin July 1 and will be funded by a state grant; in addition, Ozburn is seeking a grant from the U.S. Dept. of Justice to expand treatment opportunities.

“Court officials such as the judge, district attorney and public defender’s office will be adding these responsibilities to their normal case load and will receive no additional compensation,” Ozburn said.

Mental health courts began in the 1990s, Ozburn said, in response to an increasing number of mentally ill people ending up in jail; many of whom ended up as repeat offenders. The goal of the mental health and similar courts is not to unfairly or futilely punish people, but to help them, and in turn, help the public by saving money and creating productive citizens.

The court is only eligible for non-violent offenders; those charged with murder, armed robbery and sexual offenses cannot participate.

“The traditional court system is based on an adversarial process — one party against another. Mental health courts and other accountability courts (including drug courts, veterans courts, etc.), are based on a less adversarial system,” Ozburn said.

Instead, a collaborative style of court will help officials identify the underlying reasons why mentally ill inmates are committing their crimes and find solutions to prevent future crimes.

“This will ultimately reduce recidivism, thus reducing incarceration costs for both the county and the state,” he said.

Through its contract with health care provider NaphCare, the sheriff’s office spent approximately $195,000 on mental health treatments for inmates, Ozburn said.

Capt. Sammy Banks, who oversees the Newton County Jail, said 115 current inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness and are being treated at the jail.

At any given time, around 20 percent of inmates can be diagnosed with a mental disorder, he said.
If a person is diagnosed as having a mental disorder, they see a mental health professional, who will often prescribe appropriate medication.

Those medications are quite expensive and their cost is paid for by the sheriff’s office. The average cost to feed and house an inmate in Newton County is $45 per day, but the average cost for those who receive medications can easily be more than $65 a day.

Costs can also rack up if undiagnosed individuals have episodes that require them to be hospitalized.
However, once that person leaves jail, they either can’t afford their medication or aren’t able to or responsible enough to get medication and any other needed treatment.

They’re given a small supply upon leaving by the sheriff’s office, but that only lasts so long.

“These people basically need care and continuous education about their medication and how to deal with day-to-day activities and how to live a productive life,” Banks said.

That’s where the resources provided by the mental health court will come in. Treatment will be provided by ViewPoint Health, a public agency created to provide mental health, developmental disabilities and addictive diseases services.

Eligible participants should have a mental illness diagnosis that relates to the offense for which they were charged, Ozburn said, and either having pending criminal charges or be charged with probation violation on a felony probation.

Yolanda Cunningham, a clinical social worker and director of the mental health centers in Newton and Rockdale counties, said depression is the most common mental disorder, but the ones that usually result in criminal charges are schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and bipolar disorder, as well as substance abuse issues.

Though substance abuse would be treated by the drug court, which is overseen by Judge Ken Wynne, Ozburn said many mentally ill people try to self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs. If only the drug addiction is treated, the underlying mental issues will also still crop up, causing relapse.

As far as the pure mental health disorders, Cunningham said they can cause people to act out violently.

“People with these three illnesses can face a time where they are out of touch with reality and have delusional thoughts; they tend to be the ones who get themselves in trouble by making threats or by doing things inappropriate and they end up in jail,” she said.

In jail, these people would receive the minimum crisis treatment and medication, Cunningham said, but they would not get the more intense medication therapy and other treatments and constant interaction with community clinicians.

“We want to be able to get them back into the community and provide them with those services, but it does have to have the legal piece attached to it; that’s usually what holds people accountable,” Cunningham said.

However, not every inmate or person arrested will be able to say they are mentally ill. Banks said there were 4,462 inmates in 2012 who for one reason or another — either they displayed symptoms or threatened to hurt themselves — received an initial mental health assessment.

By comparison, only 751 inmates received a more intense mental health evaluation, which is given when someone is truly believed to be mentally ill.

However, only 626 people actually received mental health care from the jail, Banks said. The process for diagnosing someone with a mental health illness is thorough.

Banks said the county is seeing an increase in mental health patients because of the number of state programs that have been cut.

Instead, the state is providing money to local governments to solve the issue.

“We expect this court to change the lives of people who have been in and out of jail for most of their lives. By enabling them to live stable, crime-free lives in the community, their families will be proud of them again, and more jail space will be available for those who are dangerous and need to be incarcerated,” Ozburn said.

Walton County will start up a mental health court in 2014, at which point the court will rotate between the two counties every other Friday.

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