Fulton County commissioners vote to continue efforts to decriminalize mental illness

By David Pendered

Fulton County commissioners took another step Wednesday toward ending the county jail’s reputation as the state’s largest mental institution. The goal is to treat mental illnesses through a network of programs based outside the jail, possibly in a future facility designed to provide treatment rather than incarceration.

Fulton County Jail

The Fulton County Jail, on Rice Street in Atlanta, has a reputation for being the largest mental institution in Georgia, according to Fulton County Commissioner Emma Darnell. Credit: Fulton County via naco.org

Commissioners heard a presentation about a report by a blue ribbon task force that has been evaluating the crossroads of mental illness and the criminal justice system. The group’s recommendations are to be part of the ongoing work to restructure Fulton County’s legal/mental health system, which was described as “complex” by several task force members and commissioners.

Then commissioners unanimously approved a $170,276 appropriation that will enable the task force to continue its work. The sum funds an agreement with the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, at the University of Georgia, to continue its work with the evaluation.

Fulton County Commissioner Lee Morris said the outcome will not be the elimination of the county’s mental health services. The result should be more appropriate treatment that will help the individuals affected and the larger community.

“We’re going to have to find resources for the mental health services that are going to replace [those provided by] criminal justice,” Morris said. “It will be lower cost and, more importantly, we will have helped individuals involved reclaim the healthy lives our creator intended. It makes the rest of us safer, and society safer. So there are benefits of this work that are almost beyond comprehension.”

Fulton County and Georgia’s 158 other counties have no choice but to restructure their systems for handling mental illness in jails. In 2010, the state entered into a settlement agreement with the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. The agreement calls on Georgia to:

Lee Morris

Lee Morris

  • “[I]ncrease its assertive community treatment, intensive case management, case management, supported housing, and supported employment programs to serve 9,000 individuals with mental illness in community settings.”

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Doris Downs, a task force member, has presided over the county’s drug court since 2002. Downs told commissioners that much of her 32-year career in Fulton’s court system has involved defendants struggling with mental illness. Downs served first as a prosecutor then as a judge.

Between 40 percent and 70 percent of Fulton’s inmates have problems with mental illness, according to the report, in which mental illness emerges as a major aspect in Fulton County’s criminal justice system. The Fulton County Justice and Mental Health Task Force documented the situation during its work period, from April 2017 through December 2017. Among the findings:

  • Fulton County’s court system handles more than 100,000 legal matters each year;
  • The Fulton County Jail booked an average of 32,000 offenders each year from 2012 through 2016;
  • Fulton County is the largest feeder to the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental
  • Disabilities Forensic Service, which determines a defendant’s mental competency to stand trial;
  • In 2013, Fulton County defendants occupied 13 percents of the department’s forensic beds;
  • A third of the waiting list for forensic beds was comprised of Fulton County defendants.

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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