The vote to accept the grant Tuesday was 3-2 with commissioners Helen Goreham and Bob Ott opposed.
“I voted against that because I felt that there were too many unknowns, too many moving parts in order to obligate our, the county’s, general fund for anticipated expenditures,” Goreham said, in explaining her vote after the meeting.
The mental health court is expected to be set up similarly to the county’s two existing accountability courts — the felony drug court and misdemeanor DUI court. In the drug court, for example, there are a certain number of phases a felon must pass through to graduate to independence. The first phase may be daily counseling and drug testing three to five times a week.
The $53,615 state grant the board accepted is for the remainder of the state’s fiscal year, which ends June 30, county chairman Tim Lee said.
Lee expects the funds will be able to pay for the first 10 court participants.
Eligible people for the court would not meet the criteria of being legally insane, but still suffer from some form of mental illness and could be prosecuted for crimes they commit. Those are typically “nuisance crimes” and include anything from disorderly conduct to trespassing.
Lee said the county won’t know until May or June if it receives a second grant from the state. In addition, one of the biggest variables is how much treatment each client needs to undergo with the Cobb Community Service Board. Those state guidelines won’t come out until June, Lee said.
A statewide effort
Superior Court administrator Tom Charron said last year the state legislature, at the request of Gov. Nathan Deal, approved a several million dollar allocation to establish mental health courts throughout Georgia, creating a process for the various circuits to apply for funds through the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
With the little information he does have, Lee calculates the cost of the court program at $215,413 per year. Of that amount, the county is projecting an annual state grant of $120,000, leaving the county to fund the remaining $95,413 from its general fund.
Charron pledged that any additional costs of the court would take a vote by the Cobb Board of Commissioners.
During the public comment part of the meeting, Kim Frye, a criminal defense attorney who lives in Goreham’s district, made a passionate argument for why the court program needs to be created. Frye said she has two clients waiting to be enrolled in the court.
Frye said she was aware that the commissioners were concerned about costs.
Charron has previously said that the Cobb County jail spends $252,000 a year on mental health medications. While it costs $58 a day to incarcerate an inmate, it costs $78 a day to incarcerate one with mental health issues.
“I urge you when you look at this to not look at it as just numbers because the numbers are already there,” Frye said. “We already have dollars that we are already spending for prosecutors, for cases, for trials that we have to have because you can’t convince someone who doesn’t understand what’s going on that they need to accept this plea that will get them out today. They don’t understand and they’re not going to.”
While it may be true the mentally ill may be competent to stand trial, that is a very low bar, she said.
“But do they understand what’s happening and why one thing is better than another? No,” she said. “Am I competent to help them understand that? I do my best to do that. But they don’t always understand. So the money is already being spent. This is an alternative.”
A difficult environment
During the invocation of the meeting, the guest pastor spoke of the Good Samaritan, a lesson Frye reiterated.
“One of the quotes from Jesus is ‘What you do for the least of us you do for me,’” she said. “These surely are the least of us. They’re dirty. They’re a lot of times very difficult to deal with. They’ve been charged with a crime. How many people do you think want to work with them and want to do something for them? But sometimes the only reason that they have come and brushed with the criminal justice system is because of their mental illness.”
Such people can incur more criminal offenses when they’re incarcerated, she said.
“It’s a very difficult environment for them,” she said. “And it’s even more expensive for us because you’re keeping people who may be able to be out with a little bit more support from becoming productive citizens and adding to our community rather than taking them away at $78 dollars a day to stay in our jail. Because that’s where my clients are sitting. And that’s where they’ve been waiting for this. It’s an underserved community.”
Lee shared with the audience that he has personally experienced the challenges of mental health within his own family.
“I have empathy for the folks that are borderline that with a little bit of help can be moved to the next level and be successful because I have a family member that’s been in that environment and is successful now because somebody took the time to care and help them manage through the rough period,” Lee said. “And that’s what this is — helping people that are wanting to make a change, need a little bit of a boost, need a little bit of help — this will hopefully get them back to a normal life not only for them but for their family.”