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Houston Co. to start Mental Health Court | News

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Houston Co. to start Mental Health Court
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Houston County leaders are trying a new solution to a growing population of mentally ill jail inmates.

They plan to launch a mental health accountability court in October.


In a follow-up to a story we first reported in May,
court administrators say the court could save taxpayer money and change lives.

Every hallway, every cell of the Houston County jail looks the same. Administrator Major Alan Everidge wishes some of the faces changed.

Everidge said, "There's not a great way to keep this from happening over and over."

People with mental health conditions repeatedly land at the jail, typically for minor offenses. Everidge said, "They're not violent, they're not sex offenders, but they wind up in the jail, because there's no other place for them to go."

Housing those inmates costs $60 a day, plus the cost of mental health medication. About a quarter of the 500-plus population needs treatment.

As of now, there's little oversight to keep offenders medicated after release.

Superior Court Judge Katherine Lumsden hopes that's about to change. She said, "As a taxpayer, I think this is an economically smart choice."

She's spearheading the county's first Mental Health Accountability Court for felony offenders.

The first 20 enter the program in October through referrals from police, prosecutors or defense attorneys.

Offenders also have to agree to participate.

Lumsden said, "It's not a free pass. We're not going to put the public at risk." That means no one accused of a violent crime or sex offense gets in.

The court will work like Bibb County's mental health court established in 2009.

Participants must report to Judge Verda Colvin every few weeks with job prospects or housing options, along with setbacks such as failed drug tests. Those sort of problems could lead to sanctions from an imposed curfew to returning to jail.

That's where most of Bibb's participants end up.

Assistant District Attorney Jonathan Adams says for every 40 people that enter the program, 14 graduate.

Adams said, "That is a great number compared to what you would have had before the program started."

While the number may seem low, the people starting Houston County's accountability court call Bibb's a "model program". They say it's not just about saving money at the jail, but giving people the resources they need to break the cycle.

Houston County Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker said, "Even if it's a wash as far as the money spent and the money saved. He says the county received a $126,000 state grant and put in about $14,000 themselves to get the court started.

The money will pay for coordinator Angela Kidder's job, among other court costs.

Kidder said, "I have the capability of helping somebody better their life."

She will meet with participants at least twice each week, making sure they take medications and attend counseling. Kidder said, "Anything to get them on the right path and out of jail."

She'll back off gradually over time, giving offenders charge of their own life, as they meet court requirements.

Graduating should about take two years.

Everidge said, "I don't think there's a one size fits all, this is going to take care of all our problems. I don't think it's out there."

But, Everidge says it's a start to addressing a problem that until now, had no solution in sight.

In addition to starting the court, the sheriff's office also plans to put all of its detention officers through Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) in the next year.

It's a course that helps officers identify mental health problems and deescalate volatile situations.


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