It seemed appropriate that Daniel Pittman wore a T-shirt with the word “Hope” emblazoned on it.
Pittman graduated from the Newton County Resource Court program on April 2 on April 24 at a ceremony held at the Judicial Center in Covington, Ga. Frank Berry, Commissioner for the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, gave the key note speech, congratulating Pittman on his accomplishments over the last two years.
“This is your day,” Berry said. “We talk about the achievement you’ve had and what role you will play in Newton County [in the future]. You’re a role model now to others.”
The program, also known as a Mental Health Court or Accountability Court, offers law enforcements officials and judges an alternative to sending an offender with long-term mental health issues to jail time. It addresses what Judge Samuel D. Ozburn of the Alcovy Circuit Resource Court calls the “revolving jail door” syndrome that punishes without providing treatment for underlying mental health issues that can lead to substance abuse and inappropriate behavior.
“Everyone should be responsible for their conduct,” Ozburn said during the ceremony, “but we must find the reasons for that conduct. The true value of this court is changing lives marked by revolving door jails.”
Ozburn told the audience that he had served as a judge for 20 years and over that time, the population in Georgia jails had increased over 200 percent while the state population had only risen 51 percent. The alternative sentencing combines mental health and substance abuse treatment with supervision by members of the Newton County sheriff’s department, usually involves the person’s family, and can last between 18- and 24-months.
To be eligible for the program, participants must be a resident of Newton County being prosecuted for a criminal act and must have been diagnosed with severe and persistent mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffected disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Those charged with felonies murder, armed robbery, rape, child molestation or other violent crimes, are not eligible for the program. The District Attorney’s Office must agree to allow the person to enter the program, and the participants themselves must agree to commit to the treatment and supervision and to acknowledge their responsibilities to the court and the community.
“Holding people accountable used to mean locking them up,” he said. That “may keep them off the streets for a while, but we want to balance accountability and supervision with treatment.”
Each participant is given an individual plan for treatment, which includes time spent in counseling, supervision by the sheriff’s office and state probation officers, and random drug tests, said Amanda Lewis Day, Court Coordinator. “A lot of work goes on in treatment,” said Day, including, “rebuilding relationships, learning appropriate responses to conflict and appropriate ways to respond to different situations.”
They are also educated about their mental illness. It is, she said, “a life-long disease that requires life time management, but it is possible to manage it.”
One of the benefits of the court is monetary.
“Since 2010, our participants, when not in the program, have cost the jail on average $43,227 per year,” Day said. “Since the program started, our participants, when enrolled in the program, have cost the jail on average $3,938 per year.”
Pittman is the first participant to graduate from the court. Currently, there are 15 other participants in Newton County and 14 in Walton County.
“Seeing a participant slowly change [behaviors] is one of the most meaningful things I’ve been involved with,” Ozburn said. The program, he added, gives judges and law enforcement officials hope.