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Posted: January 18, 2014 8:10 p.m.

Court helps mentally ill avoid jail

Prosecutors are trained to seek justice, but for years the only kind of justice they could provide for people in need of serious help was to lock them up.

The result was a vicious cycle of re-incarceration that left the inmate no closer to being rehabilitated and left society neither safer nor saving any money on prison costs.

"We lacked the ability to do much with anyone who was mentally ill," said Chief Assistant District Attorney Melanie Bell. "We don’t want to send them to prison, because that may not be what is best for them, and when they’re released, they’re acting out against family members and neighbors and committing silly thefts, which can become felony thefts, and fighting with police, because they may be having delusions.

"Prison is not the best option, but we didn’t have any other options."

Newton County is five months into a program that does provide another option. The Newton County Resource Court, informally called the mental health court, started in late August as part of an increasingly-used statewide initiative to create real-life change in people with previously untreated mental disorders.

The Newton County program has seven participants, including a repeat offender whom Bell had prosecuted multiple times.

"His family was calling and asking, ‘Isn’t there anything else you can do for our son?’ I said, ‘I don’t have any alternative,’ but when the resource court came about, he was the first person who popped into my mind. He committed a new offense, and I called his father and said, ‘I think I have an option for your son.’ Now, he’s 90 days clean, his family is doing well and he’s doing well," Bell said. "We’re really seeing change in some people’s lives. This really provides us an alternative way to seek justice."

Rules of engagement

Because of the significant amount of time and resources devoted to each mental health court participant and the fact they get to stay out of jail, the court comes with strict requirements.

To be eligible, a person must be a Newton County resident, must be charged with and plead guilty to a crime in Newton County, and must be diagnosed with a severe and persistent mental illness – bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety and depression are some of the most common examples.

The crime must be related to the defendant’s disorder, and serious sexual and violent offenders aren’t eligible, said Judge Samuel Ozburn, who oversees the court.

"We don’t want to endanger the public," said Ozburn, referring to the fact a person in the program is not incarcerated.

Any admission to the mental health court program must be approved by the district attorney’s office.

Once a person is admitted, he or she must follow strict regulations to remain in the program, including receiving regular treatment for his/her disorder, having their homes searched on a regular basis, undergoing regular drug testing, attending a 12-step recovery program three to seven times per week, following a 7 p.m. curfew, and doing community service or taking other classes (like anger management or domestic violence) as ordered by the judge.

The program can take anywhere from 18 months to 2-plus years to complete, Ozburn said. If a person relapses and is kicked out of the program, he or she must serve the original sentence they would have been given for breaking the law.

Unlike the county’s drug court, which is stricter because of the more specific nature of the offenses, there is more leeway for people with mental disorders, Ozburn said, though everyone takes the program seriously.

Ozburn told a story of one participant recovering from addiction to pain medication who took cough medicine without telling his probation officer. As a result, the participant failed his drug test.

After a conversation in which the participant said he understood he’d made a mistake, Ozburn sentenced him to 24 hours in jail "to get his attention.

"You should have seen the faces of some of the other (participants), the effects on them. They all know each other," Ozburn said. "I don’t think we will have any more problems out of it."

Ozburn also put the participant back under more strict observation and tightened up his curfew.

"One thing about this court, if you just sit there and watch, you (learn) how blessed you are just to be able to come home and sit down and watch TV. We only have one or two (participants) who can actually work; it’s a struggle for most of them. Most have very little interaction; most don’t have a car and live with their parents," Ozburn said.

Budgeting and time management are two of the most important skills taught to the participants so that they’ll be able to function in the society when they complete the program.

 Looking at the numbers

The mental health court received a $90,000-plus state grant to operate for the 2014 fiscal year, which runs from July 2013 to June 2014, and also recently received a supplemental $20,000 grant to hire a clinician to work with both the mental health court and the drug court, said mental health court Coordinator Amanda Lewis Day.

Day is the only person who actually receives a salary from the grant; other staff members donate their time, including the judge, chief assistant district attorney, chief assisting public defender, two Newton County Sheriff’s Office deputies, two probation officers and a clinician from ViewPoint Health, a state- created agency that serves people developmental and behavioral issues, including mental disorders.

While the cost per participant is currently high, the program is designed to serve up to 25 participants at one time, Day said.

Keeping people out of jail also saves the county money.

The average cost to feed and house an inmate in Newton County is $45 per day, Capt. Sammy Banks, who oversees the Newton County Detention Center, said previously.

However, the sheriff’s office also has to cover the cost of medications, which can raise costs to around $65 per day, and around 20 percent of inmates at any given time are diagnosed with a mental disorder, Banks said previously.

The only cost to the county for the court is the phone plan for Day and the office it provides; all supplies and materials needed for the court are covered under the state grant, Day said.

Walton County, which forms the Alcovy Judicial Circuit along with Newton, is getting its own mental health court formed this year. For more information, contact Day at 678-209-3618 or by email at alewis@co.newton.ga.us.

 

 

 

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