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When it begins early next month, DeKalb County’s Mental Health Court will be a first for Georgia: a coordinated effort to divert nonviolent offenders with serious mental illnesses away from jail and into treatment. An ambitious endeavor that has been planned for more than a year, the new court program will begin on a shoestring. Funding, if it comes, won’t arrive until at least six months after DeKalb Chief Magistrate Winston P. Bethel begins presiding over cases on the new mental health court calendar. But Bethel says the necessary elements for a launch are in place, most importantly the support of DeKalb’s court and legal community. That commitment, he says, “is why we have been able to get as far as we have without a single penny.” The Mental Health Court won’t really be a special court, but rather a special calendar within DeKalb’s Magistrate Court. And the calendar is just one component of what will be a three-pronged approach to addressing the problem of mentally ill petty offenders. The program’s three components are: � A street-level Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) composed of police and mental health professionals; � A mental health court for nonviolent misdemeanor or ordinance violation offenders; and � An Assertive Community Treatment team (ACT) to provide treatment and monitoring for individuals. The program will work like this: During the booking process, medical staff at the DeKalb jail will identify individuals charged with nonviolent misdemeanor offenses for placement on the mental health calendar. Pretrial services personnel at the jail will collect a criminal history on the person and notify the local Community Service Board. Here, mental health professionals will work with family members to compile a mental health record and a recommended treatment plan. That information will be available to Bethel when he presides on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. The treatment plan, typically six to 12 months long, will be a condition of bond, and will include monitoring by pretrial services and members of the ACT team and reports to the court. For those who successfully complete the diversion program, the charges will be dismissed and the defendants diverted from the criminal justice system. Prosecutors will decide whether to file accusations against those who don’t complete the program. “The important thing is you have not had this individual at the jail for six months,” Bethel says. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), an advocacy group which has lobbied for such courts, approximately 283,000 people with serious mental illnesses were in U.S. jails or prisons in 1999 — more than four times the number in state mental hospitals. The DeKalb Mental Health Court had its genesis in the efforts of mental health activist Flo Giltman of NAMI. Giltman says her group was getting an increasing number of calls from family members whose mentally ill adult children — who had once been served by now-closed mental hospitals — were in jail. It’s all part of a phenomenon that Giltman calls “the criminalization of the mentally ill.” She says, “Previously, mentally ill patients were sent to a mental institution; criminals were sent to jail.” But the closing of mental hospitals and loss of money for mental health services has left many individuals with no have access to treatment. Some are homeless; many also have a drug or alcohol problem, according to Giltman. They are frequently arrested for nuisance-type crimes: loitering, trespassing or disturbing the peace. Debra Blum of the Georgia Indigent Defense Council’s Mental Health Advocacy Division says her office also was getting calls from parents who called police hoping to get help for their disturbed children. Instead, Blum says, the children were arrested. Giltman says, “I took it upon myself to do something morally about this issue in the county I lived in.” But, she says, she had no idea that her lobbying efforts would meet with such approval with court officials and mental health professionals. “I was waiting for someone to say no, and it never happened,” she says. The result was the DeKalb County Mental Health Criminal Justice Taskforce, a coalition of nearly 80 individuals and organizations who have worked for more than a year now to establish the Mental Health Court. At the group’s first meeting, Blum says, participants were astounded to learn that the DeKalb jail held more inmates who had been identified with some form of mental illness than did the state’s mental facility, Georgia Regional Hospital. The principle at work behind the Mental Health Court, says Blum, is one of “therapeutic jurisprudence,” or bending the criminal justice system to achieve treatment in lieu of punishment. Bethel says there are only three such courts in the country, although there are numerous court referral programs for the mentally ill. DeKalb, he says, will use what he learned from visiting the first such court, established in Broward County, Fla., in 1997. Bethel says the concept has support from all segments of the DeKalb justice system — prosecutors, public defenders, court administrators and judges. A prosecutor and public defender already have been assigned to handle the calendar. In fact, he says, he’s already getting calls from State Court judges about cases that would fit the program. Unfortunately, he says, he can’t take those cases, since Magistrate Court has no jurisdiction over accusations already filed in State Court. But, he adds, he expects at some point the Mental Health Court will move from Magistrate Court to State Court. In its budget proposal for the court, the state Department of Human Resources estimates that the court will hear 550 to 600 cases per year. Bethel says he has no idea how many cases the court will handle, but hopes to start slowly until money arrives to help fund more community treatment teams. The state Department of Human Resources has requested nearly $637,000 for the program in its next year’s budget. The money will be used primarily to fund community treatment teams that monitor the mentally ill. Giltman says the Mental Health Court won’t be a panacea. “There will still be violent crimes committed by the mentally ill.” But, she says, there also will be instances when treatment for nonviolent offenders can prevent escalation into violence. “What DeKalb would like to do is become a model,” she says, to show that the concept works for the mentally ill and for the taxpayers.

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