MIND MATTERS: Psychological well being courts will help finish street-to-jail cycle | Characteristic Columns

According to an article titled “Stepping Up” in the Augusta Chronicle on October 13, written by Josef Papp and contributor Susan McCord, Mental Health America states that 1.2 million people live with mental illness each year sit in prisons and prisons. The Vera Institute of Justice, a statewide nonprofit research and policy organization, adds that based on data collected by the federal government on local prisons, approximately 14.5% of men and 31% of women in prisons have severe mental illness, compared to 3.2% and 4.9%. , or in the general population.

Elizabeth Swavola, director of Vera’s prison decarceration initiative, stated in this article that “people with severe mental illness are dramatically over-represented in prisons.” The article outlined the local scope of this problem in the Richmond County Jail and ongoing initiatives to fine-tune the understanding of the scale of the problem and how to resolve it. A serious problem in Georgia is that the availability of mental health services is very limited. According to Papp and McCord, the state ranked last among the 50 states and Washington, DC, according to a report by Mental Health America in 2021.

Another issue considered in addressing this issue was the use of intercepts, points “in the criminal justice process where a person might be redirected to mental health resources rather than pedaling further off the road to jail.” Richmond County is working hard to maintain a robust mental health court and currently has 42 people with mental illness assigned to their program. One of the rate limiting steps for them right now is really getting to grips with the scope of the problem and current needs.

I want to share with you what we’re doing in Aiken County to address similar issues this side of the Savannah River. According to Varney Hodge, who helps coordinate and administer mental health services and mental health courts at the Aiken County Detention Center, “Mental health courts were developed in response to the inability of traditional courts and prisons to address a defendant’s underlying mental illness treat. in cases where previous diversion efforts have failed but the charge is not so serious that prosecutors are unwilling to relinquish control. Much like other specialized court systems such as drug courts and veterans courts, mental health courts are an alternative to navigating the criminal justice system for people with mental disabilities. ”Tamara Smith, executive director of the Aiken-Barnwell Mental Health Center, said the mental health court is one Partnership with the Aiken County Government, Aiken County Probate Court, District 2 Attorney, Public Defender’s Office, SCVRD, ABMHC, and the ACDC.

Angela Little, assistant probate judge in Aiken County, told me that so far she has been encouraging the program. She said the mental health court provides housing assistance when needed, trains and certifies for work positions, helps attendees reconnect with loved ones, and offers other services when needed. She stressed that inmates must volunteer for this program, plead guilty to their charges, sign information releases so that everyone involved can pool and share information to improve their success, and agree to attend court sessions as required.

The duration of this agreement can be anywhere from six to 24 months, Little said. She told me that about six people have participated in the program over the past year and that three more people are being considered as possible future candidates. After starting the conversation and planning for this program nearly three years ago, Little said she was just as pleased with the interventions it offers.

Tamara Smith provided additional insight into the workings of the Aiken County Mental Health Court. It reserves space for violent criminals and others for whom imprisonment is the only sensible alternative. It reduces arrests, shortens the days of detention, reduces relapses and the overall burden of law enforcement agencies, who often have to provide more direct observation, medication assistance, and suicide monitoring for inmates with mental illness.

To be considered for the program, perpetrators must be charged with a misdemeanor or non-violent crime and have a diagnosable mental illness. You need to understand and be able to commit to the program, usually for a year. You must be a resident of Aiken County and not pose a threat to the public. Members of the mental health court team must agree that the individual is eligible for the program. The perpetrator must plead guilty and join the program voluntarily.

Mental health services are provided by a mental health professional. The perpetrator has to do community service, pass drug tests and, if necessary, report to the court. If the perpetrator does not adhere to program guidelines, they could face sanctions, including prison weekends, additional community service, or more psychiatric services. Multiple sanctions can result in a return to jail to serve their sentence, and as Little told me, time spent in a mental health court would not count towards time served in that case got to.

All of these parts of the existing Aiken County’s mental health program are designed to look for people who are likely to succeed in the program and return to productive citizens while treating their mental illnesses at the same time. It’s an exciting and innovative way to deliver the services criminals need to minimize prison time, maximize training, support, and productivity, and get them on the road to success. Let’s hope the programs in Richmond and Aiken counties can continue to thrive and grow.

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