Friday, August 28, 2009

Mental Health Court graduates seven

Five men and two women, caught for years in a revolving door of arrests for criminal behaviors fueled by mental illnesses, graduated Aug. 28 from the Fulton County Mental Health Court.
The seven graduates had been arrested a total of 123 times resulting in jail terms and even prison time. However, since entering Mental Health Court up to 28 months ago none has been arrested.

Commencement speaker DeKalb County Superior Court Chief Judge Cynthia Becker congratulated the graduates on their success and lauded the Fulton Superior Court accountability program supervised by Fulton Superior Chief Judge Doris L. Downs.

The Mental Health Court, in operation since 2006, provides mentally ill offenders with support services in the community -- housing, medicine, treatment, jobs and community case managers -- to keep them on track. Mental Health Court staff and partner organizations work to get SSI or disability payments started so Court clients can become self sufficient financially, including paying for their housing.

Nationwide, the mentally ill comprise 16 percent of jail populations. In Fulton County the mentally ill are 26 percent of the jail population. That makes Fulton County’s Jail the largest mental health care provider in the Southeast. More than 600 Fulton Jail inmates on psychotropic medications.

State Department of Corrections data shows that Georgia is releasing more than 300 mentally ill inmates per year to live in Fulton County. These inmates are released with little or no support. Cobb County receives the state’s the next highest number; fewer than 150.

Severely mentally ill felony offenders are the most difficult population to supervise in a community setting. Their mental and developmental difficulties alone require a myriad of services and supports, often in excess of what they or their respective family and other support systems can provide.

Even in the rare situation where there may be adequate supports they fail to adhere to proscribed treatment regimes either because of their cognitive capacity or mental health deficits. Public safety is compromised when mentally ill felons are released without an appropriate discharge plan that can be supervised by the Court and managed by court representatives working within the community.

To address these issues the Superior Court of Fulton County began a pilot Mental Health Court project in the last quarter of 2006. Resources dedicated to this project included one full-time social worker and one grant-funded case manager who worked under the general Accountability Courts umbrella which includes the Drug Court. Working together with social workers from the Public Defender’s Office, they supervised 45 mentally ill offenders. Collectively, these individuals had been arrested more than 800 times with one-third of them having a criminal history which included spending time in prison.

In 2008, Fulton County’s Department of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Addictive Diseases (MHDDAD) agreed to be responsible for the therapeutic portions of the Mental Health Court program allowing a doubling of the number of defendants in the program.
Fulton Superior Court remains responsible for defendant compliance monitoring, quality control and oversight for the Mental Health Court program.

Fulton County’s Superior Court serves the county’s almost 1 million residents. It comprises both the Atlanta Judicial Circuit and the 5th Judicial District, Georgia’s only single-county Judicial Circuit and District.

Fulton Superior Court Judges hear administrative appeals and preside over civil, major criminal and domestic relations cases. And, because Fulton County includes the state’s capitol of Atlanta, by law the Court hears all lawsuits filed against state government.

To meet the challenges of these special circumstances the Fulton Superior Court has created a variety of innovative programs and services to provide meaningful access to justice for all. Other programs innovated by the Fulton Superior Court are one-jury or one-day juror service and specialized courts including Family Court, Business Court and Drug Court.