Mental illness shouldn’t be a life sentence.
It can be, though, for people whose conditions go untreated and who become stuck in the revolving door of the criminal justice system. Recognizing that many people in jail are there because of mental health issues, Gwinnett County is opening a special accountability court for those who are willing to get treatment so they can lead a productive life.
The status hearing for the first participant began Thursday before Superior Court Judge Karen E. Beyers, who is in charge of the new mental health court. Fourteen other participants are also awaiting entry to the program, said the mental health court coordinator, Priscilla Daniels.
Statewide, about 20 accountability courts are dedicated to defendants with mental health problems. These can include juvenile or adult felony courts, adult misdemeanor courts, and hybrid courts that handle both felony drug and mental health defendants. Cobb County is also starting a mental health court under the supervision of Superior Court Judge Mary E. Staley.
The reason is clear: An estimated 17 percent of local jail inmates are suffering from some mental illness, and half of all state and local correctional detainees who have a mental illness report being convicted three or more times.
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Eligibility for the new mental health court in Gwinnett will be limited to adults facing felony charges whose mental illness played a significant role in the crime they committed.
An example might be a defendant who had not been receiving medication for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, ultimately causing that person to threaten someone, get into a fight with family members or damage property.
Such a defendant’s felony charges would be dropped if he or she successfully completed the program.
The goal is to provide judicial supervision for persons with mental illness while getting them help — including substance abuse treatment if needed — so they can stay out of jail. Thanks to a $115,000 state grant, the court has the funding to operate for the first year and will have to reapply for the grant each year.
Officials hope to get at least 50 participants into the program. Referrals are starting to trickle in from defense attorneys, jail staff and mental health treatment providers.
As of mid-December three participants had already been selected, Beyers said.
The program takes anywhere from two to three years to complete and consists of four step-down phases that involve less monitoring over time. Participants who don’t comply with the rules can face sanctions ranging from a verbal reprimand to community service to jail.
Beyers said she was motivated to start the new accountability court after seeing some of the same people come before her repeatedly for committing crimes that clearly arose from an untreated mental illness.
She said one person in particular still haunts her. A young man diagnosed with schizophrenia came before her for a low-level burglary and was sent to jail. He didn’t stay on his medication after he was released, and about a year later he shot and wounded someone during a gas station robbery.
Now the man is charged with aggravated assault and will probably be imprisoned for much of his adult life.
“It just breaks my heart to see them in jail or the prison system not getting treated,” Beyers said. “It doesn’t work to just pull them in and put them back out again. It’s a revolving door.”
Beyers will meet once a week with participants to ask how their treatment is progressing and whether there have been any problems.
Many people who have a mental illness stop taking their medications because they dislike the side effects, which can include sluggishness, weight gain and nausea. They may also self-medicate with illegal narcotics. Individuals have to enter the mental health court program voluntarily and have to be mentally competent enough to understand the commitment they are making.
“We are looking for people that are really trying to get on board with complying,” Beyers said. “Someone who, at least while they’re on their medications, wants to comply with the program.”
Douglas County Superior Court Judge Steve Goss established the first mental health court in Georgia in 2002. About 100 people have graduated. Goss said the program has been good for the community because it breaks the cycle of incarceration.
“There’s a tangible tax benefit and there’s a manpower benefit,” Goss said. “But it’s also a human benefit, because everybody that comes into court is somebody’s brother or sister or father or mother.”