The Bulloch County Mental Health Court will receive a 13 percent boost in its state grant, to $163,814, with the new fiscal year starting July 1, but with an expectation that the county or local donors also pitch in $18,202.
Two-thirds of that could come from valuing office space and services the county already provides. For the rest, and to raise awareness, the court's first silent auction fundraising event is slated for July 11.
Currently 14 people, all with mental health diagnoses and facing criminal charges, are in the program, and two more could be added soon. Out of about 37 defendants who have signed contracts since the court was launched in October 2013, the 12th graduate is expected Monday. Completing the program takes one year for those facing misdemeanor charges and two years for felony offenders.
"We've had a number of folks that would be completely lost if they hadn't been through this program," said Superior Court Judge William E. Woodrum Jr.
Graduates have completed required courses designed to help them change their behavior, stayed on prescribed medications and in treatment and avoided further criminal trouble. Participants who have substance abuse problems, who are the majority, must also attend treatment and support programs for these. All defendants are required to submit to random drug testing.
By going the accountability court route, defendants avoid prison time. Those serving longer probations are often placed on a reporting-free probation after they graduate, said Karen McClain, Bulloch County's Mental Health Court coordinator.
Woodrum, chief judge of Superior Courts in the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit, which includes Bulloch, Effingham, Jenkins and Screven counties, is the Bulloch County Mental Health Court's only judge. It is now the only mental health court in the circuit and the only functioning accountability court in Bulloch County. Georgia also funds drug courts, DUI courts, veterans courts and family treatment courts as accountability courts.
No 'big relapse'
When Woodrum sat down for an interview in May, one former participant, who was removed from the program, had recently appeared in the newspaper because of an incident. But among those who stay in the program, the court hasn't had "any big relapse as far as the law is concerned," Woodrum said.
While participating in the Mental Health Court, they report when the court meets, once or twice a month. When time permits, which is often several months into the program after participants have completed some of the courses, getting a job or furthering their education is also an expectation of the court.
"You would think they couldn't, but they find jobs," Woodrum said. "We've got some that are working two or three jobs at one time. It's just amazing to me. And once you get them back on track, they're good folks."
At each court date, a team meets to discuss participants' progress and review new prospects for admission to the program. Besides Woodrum and McClain, the team consists of District Attorney Richard Mallard, Ogeechee Circuit Chief Public Defender Renata Newbill-Jallow and representatives of Pineland Behavioral Health-Developmental Disabilities, the Sheriff's Office and state and county probation programs, plus a community representative, Dr. Christine Talmadge.
Defendants with current charges or previous convictions for murder, armed robbery, rape, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery or child molestation are not eligible for Mental Health Court. Otherwise, the district attorney gets to decide whether prosecutors will agree to an accountability court referral on felony cases.
The program receives most of its misdemeanor defendants from the Bulloch County State Court, so State Court Judge Gary Mikell and Solicitor-General Joseph Cushner also have a role.
One paid staffer
Currently, McClain is the only person paid a salary under the state grant received through the Council of Accountability Court Judges of Georgia.
"It wouldn't have been successful if it hadn't been for Karen," Woodrum said. "She's put in all kind of work and dedication. You've got to have a good coordinator."
Other money from the grant goes to pay for the courses, the drug testing and participants' medications, McClain said.
In the fiscal year now ending, the Bulloch County Mental Health Court received state grant funding of $144,474. The county budget projected the court's total expenditures as $145,451. The program also received a $3,000 grant from the Bulloch County Hospital Authority, and Altrusa Statesboro provided $500.
For fiscal year 2018, the court's approved state grant has been increased to $163,814. But this comes with an expectation for total funding of $182,016, with local sources to provide 10 percent.
"This is the first year that the state has ever required us to have an exact match of some amount of money," McClain said.
However, the county government has supported the program throughout its existence by providing an office, in a separate building near the county's North Main Annex. Besides paying the power bill, the county also provided about $500 for office supplies as of last year, McClain said.
The state wants to encourage local support and not have the accountability courts be totally funded by the state in the future, Woodrum said.
"But my position is that Bulloch County has been contributing significantly by providing us resources, providing us an office, a conference room and other things," he said.
Toward the $18,202, McClain and county officials have estimated the value of the county's space and services at about $12,500.
That leaves an expected local contribution of more than $5,000. The court program can use donated money for things the state funding cannot be used for, such as emergency needs of court participants, McClain has said.
The July 11 silent auction is scheduled for 5:30-7:30 p.m. in the Luetta Moore Building on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Case manager proposed
McClain and Woodrum said raising awareness about the program is another of McClain's responsibilities, besides organizing the review sessions and being available for participants seven days a week.
She has proposed adding a part-time case manager to the payroll.
"That's one reason I'm looking forward to us having a case manager come onboard to help do everything we need to do," McClain said. "Someone can manage the participants and leave the door open a little bit for me to get out there and do more community service work."
But a decision to hire has not been made and will require Woodrum's approval, McClain said.
The grant funding is actually provided as reimbursements for expenditures. McClain submits a quarterly report to the county government, which reviews it and submits it to the state.
If the program did not use all of the approved state funding, this would also reduce the local match requirement, said Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch.
"We'll have it covered one way or another because we knew it was coming," he said.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.