“Mental Health is a Huge Issue” in Georgia Justice Strategies

Note: This item has also been posted on the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s website here.

Discussion about mental health and other substance abuse treatment alternatives was front and center Wednesday when criminal justice system officials addressed House and Senate joint appropriations lawmakers at the State Capitol.  “Mental health is a huge issue in all the things we do,” Judge Robin W. Shearer said on behalf of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges.

Georgia is in the early stages of significant adult and juvenile justice system reforms that focus on how to ensure incarceration for the most serious offenders, and how to provide community treatment options for offenders who do not benefit from or even require incarceration.

Last year the General Assembly passed reforms to move the adult corrections system toward those goals.   This year legislators are expected to approve sweeping reforms to juvenile criminal law and the civil code.  Governor Nathan Deal has made reforms a personal priority and his budget devotes millions of dollars to these goals.

The importance of mental health considerations was evident early in Wednesday’s hearing.

Adult corrections commissioner Brian Owens said the state has opened alternative treatment centers in seven rural judicial circuits and this year plans to open four-to-seven more.  Two facilities were opened to treat “dually diagnosed offenders”; Owens described them as persons with mental illness who attempt to medicate themselves with legal prescriptions or illegal drugs.  The state has also opened a new residential substance abuse treatment center for males.

These options give the state capability to treat about 5,000 non-violent offenders per year in community settings rather than prisons.  “Georgia, I believe, is really at the forefront of dealing with criminal addiction (and) criminal mental health issues,” Owens said, “applying mental health resources in the community before offenders get too far down the road and we suffer a tragedy.”

Governor Deal’s Fiscal 2014 budget contains $11.6 million for the continued expansion of drug and mental health accountability courts for non-violent offenders who need community-based treatment more than they need incarceration; this builds on $10 million that Deal inserted for the same purpose into the Fiscal 2013 budget.   Next year’s proposed budget also contains a $5 million line item to create incentives to start community-based juvenile treatment options.

That is good news for juvenile judges.  “I welcome prevention dollars,” said Judge Shearer, who is president of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been a juvenile court judge since 1993.  Shearer said, “The pendulum of whether we emphasize prevention or penalties kind of swings back and forth.  A prevention dollar is a dollar well spent.”  Shearer noted, “We are seeing children from birth until they become adults.”

By the numbers, the state adult corrections system has some 57,500 inmates and 162,600 on felony probation.  The budget is about $1.1 billion per year to support adult corrections.  The annual per bed cost for an adult inmate is about $18,000, but that cost increases for older inmates who require more advanced health care.

This week the juvenile justice system, a separate entity, had 1,741 in secure confinement and 11,941 on community supervision.  The juvenile justice department budget is $300 million. DJJ makes contact with about 52,000 juveniles per calendar year.  The annual per bed cost for a committed juvenile is above $90,000, higher than adult incarceration cost for many reasons including, DJJ operates its own school system.

Those financial numbers do not tell a complete story.  State pardons and paroles has a budget near $53 million.  Juvenile system officials, including the juvenile courts, interact with many other state agencies, making it hard to determine exactly what the state directly spends on juveniles and their justice issues.  The state easily spends $1.4 billion annually on adult and juvenile justice without factoring in even one cent of what it costs to run state and local courts.

Proposals from the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform — for adults and juveniles — focus on how to protect the public, reduce public expense and reduce recidivism, which is the percentage of juveniles who are re-adjudicated or adults convicted of a criminal offense within three years of their release.  More than 50 percent of juveniles re-enter the justice system within three years and more than 30 percent of adults re-offend.

Owens said the number of state inmates being held in county jails is significantly down.  Twelve months ago county jails held 900 males waiting for placement in a probation detention center.  Today there are no males and about 200 females.  That is important to local governments because the state does not reimburse counties for inmates who are waiting for probation detention center placement. “Our counties will save money,” Owens said.

Juvenile justice commissioner Avery Niles told legislators, “We have become an agency that deals with both youths and adults in a juvenile setting.”  Niles was DJJ board chairman until two months ago when Governor Deal moved him to the commissioner’s office.  Niles said that about half of juveniles who enter the corrections system have drug addictions.  He described the overall population as “older, more aggressive and staying longer.”  Ninety percent of youths in DJJ custody are now designated felons.

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