For some offenders in Houston County the entrance to the jail becomes a revolving door.
The same people return again and again with taxpayers spending thousands to house them.
Within the last two years the County created a program to stem the tide of inmates with mental health issues returning repeatedly to the jail.
Tamara Hall says she’s been in and out of the Houston County jail since her teenage years.
She’s now 34 and entered the mental health accountability court six months ago. Through mandatory counseling, bi-monthly courtroom visits, weekly drug tests, and classes Hall wants to get her life on track.
“I feel like they’re giving me my wings to help me fly,” Hall said.
Hall says police arrested her 26 times since she turned 16, including some felony arrests.
She suffers from a methamphetamine addiction, bipolar disorder, and diagnosed schizophrenia.
But in the six months since she joined the program, she’s not seen the inside of the County jail, not even once.
“I’ve taken for granted people for so long because I thought everyone was out to get me, and it’s not like that anymore. Like these people are rooting for me,” Hall said at the Superior Courthouse in Houston County.
That’s the point of the accountability court, to keep repeat, non-life threatening offenders with mental illness from making repeated trips to jail.
The court gave us data on eight people in the program for at least a year.
From 2013 to 2016, that group spent a combined 1,483 days in jail.
DAYS SPENT IN JAIL BEFORE PROGRAM:
2013: 243 days
2014: 299 days
2015: 555 days
2016: 386 days
Since enrolling in the program that’s down to 186. 7 of the 8 have served less than 30 days since joining. The first of those eight enrolled in the program in December of 2015.
Superior Court Judge Katherine Lumsden says it costs $60 a day to house a jail inmate. That means those 8 cost the county $88,980 before joining the accountability court.
Since joining, they’ve cost taxpayers $11,160.
“Both from a public safety standpoint and a financial standpoint, it is in all of our interest to break that cycle. Help these folks figure out how to manage their illness and keep them out of the criminal justice system,” Lumsden said in her office.
Houston County jail administrator, Major Alan Everidge, says they’ve noticed a slight change.
“Well I will tell you that we have inmates who used to be here regular, who are not here as often or not here at all that we’ve seen, recently,” Everidge said.
But Everidge says mental illness is a tough fight with no easy solution. He also said nearly a quarter of his inmates, on average, require some sort of mental health treatment.
For every three people who entered the court, one was dismissed. The dismissals came after offenders committed a new felony or failed to meet the requirements. 53 people participated in the accountability court since October of 2015.
Of those 53, 18 were removed from the program. The other 34 are on track to graduate.
Lumsden says their first and only graduate was a success story. The man turned his life around, found a job, regained custody of his children, and is now studying IT at a local college.
And for people like Hall and the one graduate, the program has helped save lives and reconnect families.
“I have three daughters who mean the world to me. And I don’t want the things that I’ve done or that have happened to me to happen to them or them to have to go through that,” Hall said.
Hall’s journey isn’t over. She’s at least a year away from graduating the 18 to 24-month long program, but Lumsden hopes she becomes one less familiar face in her courtroom.
The Mental Health Accountability Court received a new state grant this year. The grant increases funding to $190,000 from the state. Houston County matched funds with another $21,000. Lumsden says that allows them to keep 45 to 50 people in the program at a time.
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