Metro Atlanta, state grapple with jailing people with mental illnesses

Henry County has launched a program to keep people with mental illnesses out of the county’s jails. It’s part of a growing effort to help non-violent offenders who would be better served by mental health treatment facilities. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Henry County has launched a program to keep people with mental illnesses out of the county’s jails. It’s part of a growing effort to help non-violent offenders who would be better served by mental health treatment facilities. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Three months ago, people with mental illnesses arrested in Henry County for low level offenses like shoplifting or disorderly conduct might have gone directly to jail.

But in November, the south metro community rolled out a national initiative that tries to keep non-violent offenders with mental illnesses who commit misdemeanors out of county lockup by getting them instead into treatment facilities.

VIDEO: Previous coverage on this issue

Channel 2 Investigates the plight of mentally ill inmates.

The program, Stepping Up, has so far diverted 11 people to Pine Woods Behavioral Health Crisis Center in Griffin, a small dent in the 400 or so county inmates Henry officials believe suffer from everything from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.

“This is a national problem and it is certainly a problem in Henry County,” former State Court Judge James Chaffin, who is spearheading the initiative, told the County Commission last month. “The biggest mental hospitals in our nation are our jails.”

Henry's effort is part of a broader attempt across metro Atlanta and the state to address the issue of mental illness in jails. The topic has been at the forefront of discussions in recent weeks, including at the Georgia Sheriff's Association winter meeting in late January; in Gov. Brian Kemp's inaugural address to the state earlier in the month; and in a new mental health court launched a few weeks ago in Paulding County.

But how to change the situation has bedeviled the state for a long time, mental health advocates and state leaders say, and there is no quick fix.

Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, said the issue was supposed to be addressed eight years ago when former Gov. Nathan Deal began pushing justice reform. The sheriff’s association told the governor at the time that treatment for those with mental illnesses — including funding for impatient beds and outpatient services for those who just need help staying on their medications — would go a long way toward reducing state jail populations.

“Of course that didn’t happen,” Norris said.

Norris said initiatives like Stepping Up, which offers jurisdictions help with setting up mental illness diversion programs, are good ideas in theory, but can tax the limited resources of a county. For instance, the program requires law enforcement to take defendants to facilities that are not always in their county, leaving departments short an officer at a time when police forces are already understaffed.

“For certain parts of the state, it’s not a one size fits all,” he said.

Fulton County, which also has adopted the Stepping Up initiative, has moved more cautiously than Henry. It signed on in 2015, but is still in the planning stages of its program, said Fulton District Court Administrator Yolanda Lewis, and is using a $250,000 planning grant the county received last year from the U.S. Department of Justice to develop a data-driven action plan.

“It’s not a quick process,” Lewis said. “You won’t sign the resolution one day and the next day you have this huge number of people that you’ve diverted out of the system. It will take some time to build the infrastructure, to get the right people at the table and discover where the issues and the gaps are and create solutions.”

Exactly how many people in Georgia jails suffer from mental illness is unknown, reform advocates and officials said. Some counties report as few as 15 percent while others cite 50 percent or more.

“To determine how big the problem is and to negotiate for the resources necessary to deal with it, you have to state accurately the data,” said Henry Craig, who leads the the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia’s efforts to divert those with mental illnesses from jails.

‘Do things differently’

The urgency to address the issue goes beyond Georgia playing catch up. The deaths of dozens of Georgians in state jails have been tied to mental illness, according to a 2018 investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Channel 2 Action News and the Georgia News Lab. More recently, Reginald Wilson, 54, who suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, died in the Cobb County Jail last December after being arrested for a probation violation. The county declined to provide details on the death because it is still under investigation.

And while the problem is national — about 2 million people with mental illness are incarcerated every year, according to Stepping Up — Georgia is one of six states that have high incarceration rates while simultaneously offering the least access to mental health care, according to a 2015 Sentencing Project study. Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that Georgia spent $59 per capita on state mental health agencies in 2013, half the national average.

“Decriminalization is the smart thing to do and the right thing to do for our citizens,” Henry’s Chaffin said.

Georgia is undertaking efforts to stop the problem from growing. The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities has set up nine pilot mental health courts around the state to help those with mental illnesses avoid incarceration, as well as eight drug courts and two veterans treatment courts for those whose illnesses may be linked to addictions or military service, said Terro Timberlake, director of the behavioral department of Adult Mental Health.

“These pilot sites are actively working together to develop, operate, maintain, monitor and improve the courts’ responsiveness to individuals with mental illnesses in the pre-trail period,” she said.

Additionally counties across the metro area have taken their own courses of action. In 2017, DeKalb required deputies to take the Georgia Crisis Intervention Team Training Program to learn best practices when addressing suspects with mental illnesses. Four years earlier, Cobb and Gwinnett launched mental health courts, which weigh a defendant's mental diagnosis in judgments. Stepping Up also has been adopted by Rockdale and Douglas counties.

A challenge is getting everyone on the same page, said Fulton’s Lewis. When the county started its initiative by putting together monthly meetings there were people who thought the support would wane over time. But because there has been a commitment across all levels of county government, interest has remained strong.

“It was an opportunity for our commissioners to say, ‘This is a really huge issues for us,’” she said. “It was our courts saying, ‘We know that this issue exists, we have to do something differently.’ It was also law enforcement coming to the table and saying, ‘Maybe we can do things differently.’”

For those who have been battling to turn talk on the matter into action, there is a sense of hope.

Craig, who also is chairman of the Baldwin County Commission, said he is encouraged by signs of support from Gov. Kemp and the backing of organizations such as the Georgia Metropolitan Association and the Council of Superior Court Judges. The fight to make sure those with mental illnesses receive adequate care is personal to him. Baldwin is home to the state's former psychiatric hospital in Milledgeville, reminder of what happens when people are marginalized by a system that doesn't know what to do with them.

“I’m not saying that we need to recreate the great institutions of mental illness,” he said, “but if we’re not going to have those institutions, we need to morally do the right thing.”