When mental health institutions closed up decades ago, and outpatient mental health services had to shutter their doors in recent decades due to lack of funds, many people diagnosed as mentally ill were left to fend for themselves. Many of them, without any support systems, ended up incarcerated. Now, the head of the Georgia Department of Corrections says it’s time to decriminalize mental illness.
“What I’ve observed over the years is that if you have a mental illness, the first time you enter the criminal justice system you’re there forever,” said Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens. “You’re cycling in, cycling out, cycling back in. It never ends if you don’t get the help you need.”
Owens recognizes that some inmates who are mentally ill are there serving sentences for serious crimes, which they should remain incarcerated for. But, there are others—and many of them—that should be receiving treatment instead of prison time.
According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, there are more than 9,300 mentally ill inmates within the states prison system. About 6,100 are serving time for crimes of violence and sexual natures. Another 3,300 are locked up for nonviolent offenses— offenses like theft, drug possession, and fraud. This latter group is the group Owens said could benefit from treatment and potentially reduce their chances of returning to prison.
Accountability courts are one way the state hopes to cut the number of people serving prison and returning again and again. Mental health courts and drug courts are example of these accountability courts—designed to get people actual help for the causes of their criminal behavior rather than solely punishing them.
These courts involve intense treatment and significant oversight, similar to an intensive probation. But, instead of seeing a probation officer, the participants have frequent visits with the judge.
Of the 100 accountability courts in Georgia, 20 treat mentally ill offenders. Their goals, according to the AJC are to make sure the inmates take their medications, get treatment, and find employment and housing.
Judges in these courts tout their effectiveness when they see fewer of their offenders being returned to prison on probation violations and new crimes. While there may still be a stigma over mental illness, much of the public would probably agree that the cost benefits of treatment over prison and the decreased chance of recidivism are reason enough to seek treatment for this segment of the population.
If you are mentally ill, whether you are treated with medication and therapy or nothing at all, you may need particular help when faced with a criminal charge. Contact our offices today to see if an accountability court is the answer for you.