According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than half of all prison and jail inmates have mental health problems.
In Gwinnett County, a special type of court is now available for the mentally ill facing criminal charges that can help them receive treatment instead of incarceration.
Various Georgia statistics indicate 16 to 17 percent of inmates suffer from some type of mental illness.
WABE legal analyst Page Pate thinks the number is actually higher because so many offenders are not properly diagnosed.
“They get arrested generally for minor offenses, but then they’re put on probation and as a result of their condition and lack of treatment they get picked up again usually for another minor offense. But that puts them back in jail; sometimes it’s for a more serious offense.”
Pate, a criminal defense attorney, is not alone.
Frank Berry is commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.
He says correctional facilities are no place for those who desperately require treatment.
Berry praises Governor Nathan Deal for pushing the transformation in how the mentally ill are treated by the courts.
“With the criminal justice reform that occurred last year and this year with the focus being on the juvenile justice reform, people are really beginning to recognize that community-based treatment really does work and help people lead a life of recovery.”
In Gwinnett, Superior Court judge Karen Beyers will be part of the decision to determine who’s eligible for the mental court.
According to Frank Berry, an evaluation from the state created Viewpoint Health Services will also be used.
“So it’s really a strong partnership. It’s the judicial branch relying on a high quality treatment provider to help the judge make the decision of whether or not somebody participates or does not participate. It’s done through comprehensive assessment.”
Viewpoint Health is already a treatment provider for Gwinnett County’s DUI and drug Court.
Those that receive and complete treatment could have their criminal charges dropped.
Berry believes the effectiveness of Gwinnett’s mental court could be influential in demonstrating how all Georgia counties could benefit.
“If you can do these things in a county to close of a million people, then we should be able replicate that across the state.”