Cobb County’s new Mental Health Court is underway after facing strong headwinds from commissioners that delayed the start and raised questions about the program’s long-term sustainability.
Seven participants have joined the program since its launch in May, and several more are in the process of being approved. The two-year program aims to treat non-violent offenders with documented mental health issues in order to prevent them from committing another crime.
The program is tailored for each participant depending on their diagnosis, which could include paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Every participant has to obtain psychological treatment at least once a week and be found clean on twice weekly random drug tests for illegal substance abuse. The drug tests won’t show if participants are taking their prescribed medication, which is a key compliance measure. But caseworkers who are familiar with symptoms of untreated mental illness can usually discern that by observing the participants’ behavior during their regular interactions.
The concept of mental health courts has been embraced across Georgia, where about 20 are in operation. But in Cobb, one of the state’s largest counties, the program has already faced roadblocks and its funding future is still uncertain.
There is clearly a need for mental health intervention with Cobb County’s jail population. About a third of the jail’s inmates are being medicated for mental health issues.
The county obtained a start-up grant last year for $160,847 from the state Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, the highest awarded to any county mental health court in the state. But because of delays and the financial concerns from county commissioners, the court ran out of time to spend the money and had to return more than $100,000 of the grant.
This year, Cobb requested $89,520 and received $27,320, the second-lowest amount given to any county in the state. Because funding is so limited, the county has had to use existing court staff to implement the program with the help of a full-time case manager employed by the court’s treatment service provider, the Cobb Community Service Board.
The county has also scaled back the number of participants it had hoped to accept, from the 30 to just 10, until more funding is secured.
“It is critical we identify new funding sources,” said Tod Citron, executive director of the Cobb and Douglas county Community Service Boards, which provide treatment for participants. “This was started on the backs of people who were already pretty busy.”
Other counties that have started mental health courts have found themselves in a similar position of seeking additional funds, because the state’s accountability court grant money is not intended to support them 100 percent, according to Judge Jack Partain of the Conasauga Judicial Circuit Superior Court in North Georgia. Partain heads the state accountability court funding committee.
For fiscal year 2014, the funding committee received $17.5 million worth of requests from accountability courts across the state. It was only able to award $11.6 million approved by state lawmakers.
“Courts are encouraged to find outside funding in addition to state funding,” he said. “They should start off small and grow, and in doing so, should not outgrow their funding.”
But Commissioner Helen Goreham, who represents northwest Cobb, worries commissioners could be blamed for ending a potentially successful program if it can’t sustain itself and county leaders are forced to make cuts. She voted against accepting the grants.
“It’s not that all of us don’t believe there are mental health issues that should be addressed, but right now I don’t see the financial support from the outside I’d hoped to see,” she said.
Mental Health Court coordinators are hoping they can generate enough success stories from pioneering participants to garner goodwill and — more importantly — more cash to support their efforts in the future.
Superior Court Administrator Tom Charron said the court was awarded less money the coming fiscal year because less money was requested, and because the state usually decreases funding after the start-up year. He believes the county will be able to get additional funding from other grant programs.
But Charron doesn’t fault Goreham and other commissioners for worrying about future costs. Charron said he’d much rather the commissioners take their decisions slowly and be satisfied with the results. In the meantime, Charron said, the court is committed to making the best of the situation with the resources it has.
“Our commitment was that there would be no additional funding required to staff these programs, that all the funds go solely to the treatment and whatever supplies are needed to deliver the treatment,” Charron said. “We’re not bringing in a bloated staff. If we’re successful, it will justify itself.”
Superior Court Judge Mary Staley, who oversees the mental health court, said she has been watching defendants struggle with mental illness – often returning to her courtroom again and again for the same crimes — throughout her entire career as a judge and a prosecutor. Often, jail becomes a revolving door because the defendants’ underlying issues are never dealt with.
Staley believes all of the participants are doing better already and is committed to continuing the mental health court program regardless of the funding flap.
“I’m willing to do the extra work even if we don’t get paid a penny,” Staley said. “Things that are worthwhile are worth doing.”