The Bulloch County Mental Health Court sets high expectations on defendants’ time and life choices. But some participants and graduates say the accountability court program has saved their lives.
“If I hadn’t got arrested, I’d probably be dead right now,” said Michael, a participant in his late 20s who expects to graduate from the program in September.
After making a similar statement when the court held a coffee with local law enforcement officers last month, he repeated the point in an interview. Participants interviewed for this story are identified by first names only, and agreed to this.
The Mental Health Court, in existence since October 2013, received a 13 percent increase in its available state funding, to $163,814, for the fiscal year that began July 1. But a specific local contribution, $18,202, is required for the first time.
Office space and support services provided by the county, valued at about $12,000, are being counted toward that requirement. The program is holding its first public fundraiser, a silent auction, Tuesday, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., in the Luetta Moore Building on Martin Luther King Drive.
‘Haven’t turned back’
Michael had previously been diagnosed with bipolar type-II disorder, but his symptoms worsened and led to an episode that got him in trouble with the law about two and half years ago. He was charged with felony false reporting of a crime, and some misdemeanors, including possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, he said.
“This was the first time where the episode extended out of my house and the cops got hold of me, and thank God for that,” Michael said. “I was headed way down hill, I never had any meds, never could afford it. I thought, you know, treatment and doctors were for rich people.”
But after the court program introduced him to treatment, “I just haven’t turned back since, never failed a drug test, never been in trouble, never want to go back to that life, now,” he said.
“It’s a long program” and takes patience, Michael said.
The court required him to attend classes and group sessions every week day at first. Then he could step down to three days a week. Besides the basic courses such as “Thinking for Change,” there were anxiety and anger-management classes and substance abuse classes.
Now he has completed the courses but still sees a counselor once a week and his doctors when scheduled.
Michael hopes to be considered for a pardon when he completes the program this fall.
Whom it serves
Officially, this special court is the Bulloch County Accountability/Treatment Court, but defendants must have a mental health diagnosis to participate. People with charges or past convictions for murder, armed robbery, child molestation, rape and other sex crimes are legally barred from the program.
A team of court and treatment professionals, law enforcement and probation officers and a community representative evaluate would-be participants’ cases, and the district attorney must agree to the accountability court route for defendants charged with felonies. Although Judge William E. Woodrum Jr., chief judge of the Ogeechee Circuit Superior Courts, is the Mental Health Court’s presiding judge, the program also receives misdemeanor referrals from the Bulloch County State Court.
Karen McClain, the Mental Health Court coordinator, is currently the only person paid a salary from the state grant, but Woodrum has recently authorized adding a part-time case manager.
Participants sign contracts agreeing to do what the court requires, which includes completing classes on coping skills, attending counseling, taking prescribed medications, staying clean of illegal drugs and undergoing random drug testing.
For courses and support programs, the court works closely with Pineland Behavioral Health/Developmental Disorders, the Statesboro-based agency that supplies services in eight counties. Accountability Court grant funds pay for courses and medications for court participants.
Participants charged only with misdemeanors can complete the program in one year and sometimes have their original charges dismissed. But participants with felony charges must remain in the program two years and often face longer, often five-year, probations. Upon graduation, some have their remaining probation reduced to a non-reporting status.
After the local Drug Court ceased to operate when its founding judge, Superior Court Judge John R. “Robbie” Turner, retired in December, the Mental Health Court is Bulloch County’s only accountability court. Officials have discussed possibly restarting the Drug Court in 2018.
Other Georgia jurisdictions have other types of accountability courts, including DUI courts, family treatment courts and veterans’ courts.
One veteran has graduated from the Bulloch County Mental Health Court. Bruce, an Army staff sergeant during the war in Afghanistan, saw combat, but it was a fall down the side of the mountain that left him with a traumatic brain injury and other injuries, he said. He was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
At a point where he was going to commit suicide, Bruce said, he was referred to the accountability court on a misdemeanor charge. This allowed him to be enrolled in the courses and group sessions, in addition to the treatment he received through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Meeting once or twice a month, when participants are required to appear in court, the court team checks on their progress and informs the judge of any problems. Both Michael and Bruce described these sessions as giving them a feeling of support.
“Everybody cared. Everybody wanted me to get better,” Bruce said. “It just seemed like it wasn’t just them (the professionals) caring and helping me, the participants in the program cared. It was a new family.”
Bruce has a wife and children and has resumed doing some family things he wasn’t doing before, such as going to a popular store.
“I’m able to really go out into public, you know, and associate with people,” he said. “I really wasn’t very much of a people person anymore, and now I like kind of being around people. Going to Walmart still gets to me, but I can deal with it.”
Any charges against him were dismissed when he graduated, McClain said.
Will, a Georgia Southern University graduate in his 40s, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder a decade earlier, but worked at good jobs, including a state job and as a store manager. Then he began experiencing psychotic features, including hearing voices, which he said led to his legal trouble in 2015.
He was charged with making terroristic threats after writing some letters.
“At the time I wasn’t looking at them that way,” he said. “It was a cry for help.”
Having completed through the required courses, he now gets counseling once every two weeks and, while a noncustodial parent, is taking an optional parenting class. He expects to graduate from the accountability court in September or October and hopes to have his probation reduced.
Family members sometimes attend Mental Health Court sessions with participants. Will’s mother has done so and said the counseling has been the biggest help for him. She also praised McClain, whom didn’t know before her son entered the program, saying, “She’s a total problem solver, and whatever issues arise, she provides a solution.”
Currently, 12 people are enrolled in the program, down from 14 in May, but two more are under review. Some drop out or are dismissed for getting arrested again or not complying with the requirements. Out of about 37 who signed contracts in the program’s first three and a half years, 12 have graduated.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.