Eleven people have graduated so far from the Bulloch County Mental Health Court program during its first three and a half years, avoiding prison and staying in treatment, completing courses on coping skills, and complying with other requirements.
They constitute one-third of the 33 felony and misdemeanor defendants who were accepted and agreed to participate, out of 139 reviewed for admission from September 2013 into February 2017.
With 16 current participants, the Mental Health Court is now the only active accountability court in Bulloch County. The Drug Court ceased operations when Ogeechee Circuit Superior Court Judge John “Robbie” Turner, who helped create the Drug Court more than 12 years ago, retired at the end of 2016.
But drug and mental health courts are two of the five kinds of adult accountability courts that exist in Georgia. The state government has funded their expansion, increasing the budget for accountability court grants from $11.6 million in 2013 to almost $22 million in fiscal year 2017, and $25.7 million for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1.
“There’s a need for these types of programs, and the governor has said he wanted everyone who needed an accountability court to have the opportunity to participate in one,” Judge Jason J. Deal, chair of the Council of Accountability Court Judges of Georgia, told the Statesboro Herald.
The council oversees certification and training for Georgia’saccountability courts. Those that receive state funding must be certified and then undergo peer review every three years by a judge and an accountability court coordinator from a different jurisdiction.
“We’re trying to fulfill that mission as best we can by trying to help the courts expand and providing the resources they need," Deal said.
A Superior Court judge in the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, based in Gainesville, Deal is presiding judge of two accountability courts. His father, Gov. Nathan Deal, has promoted accountability courts as a part of criminal justice reform aimed particularly at reducing prison costs.
“The unprecedented criminal justice reforms we’ve implemented since 2009 have already had a remarkable and positive impact, with overall prison commitments down 15.4 percent through the end of 2016,” the governor said at a May 9 signing ceremony.
One of the three pieces of criminal justice legislation he signed into law that day sets and clarifies standards for veterans’ courts and family treatment courts.
As of March, Georgia had 50 certified drug courts, 35 certified mental health courts, 25 certified DUI courts and 11 certified family treatment courts, Judge Deal said. The council’s website showed 20 veterans’ treatment courts.
The common thread is treatment for substance abuse or mental health issues, or often both.
Bulloch County’s court
Judge William E. Woodrum Jr., also chief judge of the four-county Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Superior Courts, is presiding judge of Bulloch County’s Mental Health Court. Officially the Bulloch County Accountability-Treatment Court, it has one employee, its full-time coordinator, Karen McClain.
When the court meets, which is once or twice a month, McClain brings together a team to discuss participants’ progress and review new prospects for admission to the program. The team also includes Woodrum, District Attorney Richard Mallard, Ogeechee Circuit Chief Public Defender Renata Newbill-Jallowand representatives of Pineland Behavioral Health-Developmental Disabilities, the Sheriff’s Office and state and county probation programs.
Defendants with current charges or previous convictions for murder, armed robbery, rape, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery, child molestation or aggravated child molestation or child molestation are not eligible for Mental Health Court. But those charged with other felonies are, as are those facing misdemeanorcharges in Superior Court.
Team members, and especially the district attorney, have a lot of discretion on who gets into the Mental Health Court program, McClain said.
“That’s the purpose of the team,” she said. “Everybody talks it out, everybody listens to the review and the medical history and so forth of an individual, and everybody discusses whether we’ve got appropriate treatment that we can provide to this individual.”
All participants have a mental health diagnosis. These include disorders with causes in life experiences, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as classic mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Some veterans with PTSD have graduated from the program.
The requirements demand much of participants, but are meant to support them in living normal lives and staying out of trouble. Random drug testing and treatment is required of those with substance abuse problems.
Most participants are placed in outpatient day treatment programs with Pineland BHDD and are required to attend regularly.
Additionally, the court requires participants to take classes designed to help them change their behavior, stay on course with their medication and treatment and stay out of trouble.
“Motivation for Change” is an eight-week, once-a-week course. After that, participants are enrolled in “Thinking for Change,” meeting twice a week for 18 weeks. Shorter classes in anger management, substance abuse awareness and anxiety awareness and a “wellness recovery action plan” are also required.
If participants do all that is required and are not arrested again, felony offenders graduate after two years; misdemeanor offenders, after one year.
“Of the 11 that we’ve graduated, only one of those has had any type of new charges since graduation,” McClain said earlier this spring. “The whole goal is to help people remain free from future charges or incidents where they could be arrested. You want them to be law-abiding citizens in the community, where they are supporting and benefitting the community.”
The Bulloch County Mental Health Court received state grant funding of $144,474 and projected expenditures of $145,451 for the current fiscal year, according to the county commissioners’ budget.
Besides McClain’s salary and benefits and office expenses, the grant pays for the required courses for participants, for their medications, and often for drug screenings, she said.
Additionally, the state expects some local support in the program. Here, this is done through donations. The court received a $3,000 grant from the Bulloch County Hospital Authority and $500 from the women’s civic organization Altrusa Statesboro in the past year. Donated money can be used to help participants with other needs, such as dental and primary medical care, McClain said.
The county also previously had a DUI court, which operated through the Bulloch County State Court, but which no longer exists.
A Drug Court again?
Turner and other local court, law enforcement and recovery professionals established the Drug Court before the state created the annual grant program. Unlike the Mental Health Court, which has received grant funding every year of its existence, the Drug Court received grants some years but not others.
Turner’s longtime secretary, Pattie Akins, served as the Drug Court’s administrator, and it ceased to operate when they both retired from Superior Court service in December.
Superior Court Judge Michael Muldrew, elected last year, said he is willing to carry on the Drug Court. But a shared order of the circuit’s Superior Court judges bars him from judging adult criminal cases until 2018. Since Muldrew was previously an assistant district attorney in the circuit, this is to allow time for cases he touched as a prosecutor to move through the courts.
“Hopefully Bulloch County will crank back up with a drug court soon,” Deal said. “You know, the drug court is the granddaddy of the programs. There are more people that get involved in drug courts than any of the other courts because it’s the predominant problem.”
The Herald has an interview scheduled with Judge Woodrum next week about the local accountability courts and their future.