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SWINDLE Column: Mental health courts rising

In prior columns, I have praised Gov. Nathan Deal for his bold and courageous efforts in advocating for the need of mental health courts across our state. Despite him having to leave office because of term limits, leaders in the General Assembly have taken up his cause. 

Thanks to our prior governor, today there are multiple counties that have mental health courts in Georgia. Some of those include Carroll, Douglas, Troup, and other west Georgia counties. 

Since Nathan Deal expressed his desire to see that county jails no longer serve as mental health institutions, mental health courts have been created and are flourishing. 

While Georgia has a number of mental health courts, we do not have enough. I encourage our local elected officials, judges, politicians and people of influence to consider implementing a mental health court in each county in the west Georgia area. We clearly have a tremendous need for these types of courts. I have handled numerous criminal cases where the defendant would have significantly benefitted from participation in a mental health court. In most of those cases, the prosecutor agreed with me.

These courts do not just help defendants. With the implementation of a mental health court, each county will eventually save money, decrease the rate of recidivism, decrease the rate of all types of crimes, decrease the number of crime victims, protect law enforcement officers, and treat the core issues that significantly contribute some criminal behavior.

The General Assembly has given our counties the power to create mental health courts by enacting O.C.G.A. 15-1-16.

According to the rules governing mental health courts in Georgia, the purpose of these courts is as follows:

“Large numbers of individuals with mental illnesses come into contact with the criminal justice system, often resulting in poor outcomes such as the ineffective use of law enforcement, jail, court and correctional dollars while failing to improve public safety. Frequently, people with mental illnesses repeatedly cycle through the criminal justice system for relatively minor offenses because the underlying factors associated with their criminal activity have not been adequately addressed. While not originally intended as the primary intervention point for dealing with mental illnesses, far too often it is the courts which are called on to triage and intercede with this population due to their criminal conduct.”

It is estimated that almost 17% of individuals entering local jails are suffering from some mental illness and half of all jail and state correctional detainees with mental illnesses reported three or

more prior convictions.

Ask your local sheriff if he or she wants to operate a mental health institution.

Fortunately, over the past decade, courts have explored new ways of responding to individuals with mental illnesses who appear on criminal dockets. Using lessons learned from drug courts, mental health courts, and other accountability courts, west Georgia leaders have provided mentally ill offenders with appropriate resources in their respective communities. These actions have been coupled with providing judicial oversight and supervision.”

Few people would wish significant mental health disease on their worst enemy. I have looked into the eyes of people who were born with a variety of mental illnesses.  It is heartbreaking, disturbing, and frustrating. The source of the frustration comes from the reality that it cannot ever be totally “fixed.” 

However, mental illness can be treated. The best strategy to help these folks is mental health court. 

We should all be grateful that Gov. Deal and his son, Judge Jason Deal, had the foresight, intelligence, judgment, and courage to implement these courts. The timing was right.   

Hopefully, one day, every judicial circuit will accept that the county jail is not a mental institution.