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Court targets mental illness
Efforts seek to rehabilitate, keep out of jail
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Forsyth County News

Mental illness is no foreign topic in Forsyth County Superior Court.

Chief Judge Jeffrey S. Bagley said people with mental health issues appear before his bench on a “fairly regular basis.”

Bagley hopes a new statewide mental health probation program will reduce the instances where he sees the same face twice.

Those who violate the terms of probation return to court, where a judge can revoke the privilege and require jail time instead.

Of about 160,000 probationers in Georgia, 20 percent have been diagnosed with a mental illness, according to state figures.

The new Georgia Department of Corrections program, which takes effect July 1, will provide additional training for mental health probation officers to provide more intensive and specialized supervision.

“Persons with mental health issues do require greater supervision,” Bagley said. “Before this special mental health track, they just did regular probation and we hoped for the best.”

A few places in Georgia already address mental health in the criminal justice system, but Forsyth County, like most, is still looking for the best solution.

The state’s program will retrain at least one existing probation officer in each of the 49 judicial circuits to supervise those with mental illnesses, said Mark Morris, deputy director of probation.

In the Bell Forsyth Judicial Circuit, just consisting of Forsyth County, Morris said the probation office has about 805 active cases.

“If you extrapolate that out, typically 20 percent are identified with a mental health illness, that would be about 161 offenders,” he said. “If Bell Forsyth is true to the average of the rest of the state, which they probably are, you can see real quick that there’s a need for supervision with that population.”

Each officer will be limited to 40 cases at a time.

They are receiving specialized training on how to communicate with mental health probationers, taking different types of approach to supervision, Morris said.

In addition, officers will attend a critical incident training program taken by law enforcement, he said, and they will visit a facility that houses severely mentally ill persons to see how the staff interacts with them.

Offenders can qualify for the probation program if they have a previously diagnosed mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, Morris said.

“It’s to get [them] the closer supervision that they need to help them keep compliant, for one, to help keep them in the community, closer to their families and out of the prison system,” he said. “It’s also a cost avoidance if you can supervise them in the community rather than sending them to prison if they violate their probation.”

Individuals with serious mental illnesses often require more attention because their thoughts and behaviors aren’t typical, said Flo Giltman, a board member of the National Alliance for Mental Illness-Forsyth Dawson Lumpkin.

“The last thing you want to see is to have that individual return [to jail], and they will return if the mental illness is not addressed,” Giltman said. “If the mental illness is not addressed, then you’re not getting to the source of the problem. They’re going to continue to be delusional. They’re going to often break the law.”

Those crimes are often misdemeanors, she said, or what she calls “nuisance crimes” because the behaviors of a mentally ill person might disrupt the public order or scare people.

A specialized supervisor will increase the likelihood that the probationer will continue to see a psychiatrist, take prescribed medication and, hopefully, stay out of legal trouble during and after probation, Giltman said.

“These illnesses cannot be cured. They can only be managed,” she said. “This [program] is really good news because some services are better than none. A lot of these probation officers and parole officers have very minimum training, if at all, on serious mental illness.”

Giltman is one of 26 community members on the Forsyth County Mental Health Criminal Justice Task Force, founded by Bagley in 2010.

One of the group’s goals may soon be within reach, Bagley said, since an application is pending for a state grant to initiate the creation of a mental health court.

Like the probation program, mental health court allows for specialized attention and more appearances before the judge to stay on track, he said.

Another program available through the state seeks to help offenders with mental illness and substance abuse problems.

Two state integrated treatment facilities recently opened, offering a nine-month program for offenders with a dual diagnosis. The men’s facility is in Appling County, and the women’s is in Pike County.

Bagley said he has already included the treatment program in a sentence for someone.

“They would then come back on mental health probation,” he said. “Hopefully, they are able to be stabilized while they’re on probation and not violate, not commit another offense and have to be put back in jail and brought before the judge for a probation violation. That’s the benefit is trying to keep them crime-free.”