Pro­gram to help men­tally ill work­ing

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - GABRIEL KHOULI gkhouli@cov­news.com

Pros­e­cu­tors are trained to seek jus­tice, but for years the only kind of jus­tice they could pro­vide for peo­ple in need of se­ri­ous help was to lock them up.

The re­sult was a vi­cious cy­cle of re-in­car­cer­a­tion that left the in­mate no closer to be­ing re­ha­bil­i­tated and left so­ci­ety nei­ther safer nor sav­ing any money on prison costs.

“We lacked the abil­ity to do much with any­one who was men­tally ill,” said Chief As­sis­tant Dis­trict At­tor­ney Me­lanie Bell. “We don’t want to send them to prison, be­cause that may not be what is best for them, and when they’re re­leased, they’re act­ing out against fam­ily mem­bers and neigh­bors and com­mit­ting silly thefts, which can be­come felony thefts, and fight­ing with po­lice, be­cause they may be hav­ing delu­sions.

“Prison is not the best op­tion, but we didn’t have any other op­tions.”

Newton County is five months into a pro­gram that does pro­vide another op­tion. The Newton County Re­source Court, in­for­mally called the men­tal health court, started in late Au­gust as part of an in­creas­ingly-used statewide ini­tia­tive to cre­ate real-life change in peo­ple with pre­vi­ously un­treated men­tal dis­or­ders.

The Newton County pro­gram has seven par­tic­i­pants, in­clud­ing a re­peat of­fender whom Bell had pros­e­cuted mul­ti­ple times.

“His fam­ily was call­ing and ask­ing, ‘Isn’t there any­thing else you can do for our son?’ I said, ‘I don’t have any al­ter­na­tive,’ but when the re­source court came about, he was the first per­son who popped into my mind. He com­mit­ted a new of­fense, and I called his fa­ther and said, ‘I think I have an op­tion for your son.’ Now, he’s 90 days clean, his fam­ily is do­ing well and he’s do­ing well,” Bell said. “We’re re­ally see­ing change in some peo­ple’s lives. This re­ally pro­vides us an al­ter­na­tive way to seek jus­tice.”

Rules of en­gage­ment

Be­cause of the sig­nif­i­cant amount of time and re­sources de­voted to each men­tal health court par­tic­i­pant and the fact they get to stay out of jail, the court comes with strict re­quire­ments.

To be el­i­gi­ble, a per­son must be a Newton County res­i­dent, must be charged with and plead guilty to a crime in Newton County, and must be di­ag­nosed with a se­vere and per­sis­tent men­tal ill­ness – bipo­lar dis­or­der, schizophre­nia, anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion are some of the most com­mon ex­am­ples.

The crime must be re­lated to the de­fen­dant’s dis­or­der, and se­ri­ous sex­ual and vi­o­lent of­fend­ers aren’t el­i­gi­ble, said Judge Sa­muel Ozburn, who over­sees the court.

“We don’t want to en­dan­ger the pub­lic,” said Ozburn, re­fer­ring to the fact a per­son in the pro­gram is not in­car­cer­ated.

Any ad­mis­sion to the men­tal health court pro- gram must be ap­proved by the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice.

Once a per­son is ad­mit­ted, he or she must fol­low strict reg­u­la­tions to re­main in the pro­gram, in­clud­ing re­ceiv­ing reg­u­lar treat­ment for his/her dis­or­der, hav­ing their homes searched on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, un­der­go­ing reg­u­lar drug test­ing, at­tend­ing a 12-step re­cov­ery pro­gram three to seven times per week, fol­low­ing a 7 p.m. cur­few, and do­ing com­mu­nity ser­vice or tak­ing other classes (like anger man­age­ment or do­mes­tic vi­o­lence) as or­dered by the judge.

The pro­gram can take any­where from 18 months to 2-plus years to com­plete, Ozburn said. If a per­son re­lapses and is kicked out of the pro­gram, he or she must serve the orig­i­nal sen­tence they would have been given for break­ing the law.

Un­like the county’s drug court, which is stricter be­cause of the more spe­cific na­ture of the of­fenses, there is more lee­way for peo­ple with men­tal dis­or­ders, Ozburn said, though ev­ery­one takes the pro­gram se­ri­ously.

Ozburn told a story of one par­tic­i­pant re­cover- ing from ad­dic­tion to pain med­i­ca­tion who took cough medicine with­out telling his pro­ba­tion of­fi­cer. As a re­sult, the par­tic­i­pant failed his drug test.

Af­ter a con­ver­sa­tion in which the par­tic­i­pant said he un­der­stood he’d made a mis­take, Ozburn sen­tenced him to 24 hours in jail “to get his at­ten­tion.

“You should have seen the faces of some of the other (par­tic­i­pants), the ef­fects on them. They all know each other,” Ozburn said. “I don’t think we will have any more prob­lems out of it.”

Ozburn also put the par­tic­i­pant back un­der more strict ob­ser­va­tion and tight­ened up his cur­few.

“One thing about this court, if you just sit there and watch, you (learn) how blessed you are just to be able to come home and sit down and watch TV. We only have one or two (par­tic­i­pants) who can ac­tu­ally work; it’s a strug­gle for most of them. Most have very lit­tle in­ter­ac­tion; most don’t have a car and live with their par­ents,” Ozburn said.

Bud­get­ing and time man- age­ment are two of the most im­por­tant skills taught to the par­tic­i­pants so that they’ll be able to func­tion in the so­ci­ety when they com­plete the pro­gram.

The men­tal health court re­ceived a $90,000-plus state grant to op­er­ate for the 2014 fis­cal year, which runs from July 2013 to June 2014, and also re­cently re­ceived a sup­ple­men­tal $20,000 grant to hire a clin­i­cian to work with both the men­tal health court and the drug court, said men­tal health court Co­or­di­na­tor Amanda Lewis Day.

Day is the only per­son who ac­tu­ally re­ceives a salary from the grant; other staff mem­bers do­nate their time, in­clud­ing the judge, chief as­sis­tant dis­trict at­tor­ney, chief as­sist­ing pub­lic de­fender, two Newton County Sher­iff’s Of­fice deputies, two pro­ba­tion of­fi­cers and a clin­i­cian from ViewPoint Health, a state­cre­ated agency that serves peo­ple de­vel­op­men­tal and be­hav­ioral is­sues, in­clud­ing men­tal dis­or­ders.

While the cost per par- tic­i­pant is cur­rently high, the pro­gram is de­signed to serve up to 25 par­tic­i­pants at one time, Day said.

Keep­ing peo­ple out of jail also saves the county money.

The av­er­age cost to feed and house an in­mate in Newton County is $45 per day, Capt. Sammy Banks, who over­sees the Newton County De­ten­tion Center, said pre­vi­ously.

How­ever, the sher­iff’s of­fice also has to cover the cost of med­i­ca­tions, which can raise costs to around $65 per day, and around 20 per­cent of in­mates at any given time are di­ag­nosed with a men­tal dis­or­der, Banks said pre­vi­ously.

The only cost to the county for the court is the phone plan for Day and the of­fice it pro­vides; all sup­plies and ma­te­ri­als needed for the court are cov­ered un­der the state grant, Day said.

Wal­ton County, which forms the Al­covy Ju­di­cial Cir­cuit along with Newton, is get­ting its own men­tal health court formed this year. For more in­for­ma­tion, con­tact Day at 678-2093618 or by email at alewis@co.newton.ga.us.

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