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Bill would create court to handle mentally ill

Bill would create court to handle mentally ill
ATLANTA -- Georgia courts may get a set of instructions on how to create a special division under a bill about mental health courts. The proposed court would handle people arrested on criminal charges who have mental illnesses. Such courts can assign alternative sentences in an attempt to break cycles of incarceration, release and reoffending.
A bill offered by state Sen. Johnny Grant, R-Milledgeville, directs the state judicial branch to lay down guidelines about how to best set up and run such a court. It specifies that funding may come from within the budget a court already has. It does not mandate a new budget line.
The Macon Judicial Circuit, which includes Bibb, Crawford and Peach counties, initiated such a program in 2007, but many other places don’t have one. Treatment in the Macon Judicial Circuit court might include staying in an apartment supervised by someone who will keep the offender on his or her medications and twice-monthly reports to a judge. The River Edge Behavioral Health Center offers care by a doctor, training for job skills, parenting classes and more.
A study from 2005 to 2007 in Hall County found that alternative programs cost about one-sixth the price of jail time. Last year, a similar bill was filed in the state Senate, but it failed to get a committee hearing. Grant’s bill has yet to get a committee hearing date, but it’s been signed by at least three Senate Judiciary Committee members and two Democrats.
In general, criminal courts that only handle certain types of cases are often called problem-solving courts. Some Georgia counties already have what’s called a drug court. That pretrial program diverts nonviolent drug offenders to things such as drug testing, intense supervision and treatment, instead of the county lockup where the offender will take up space and may get mixed up with harder criminals.
Other counties are looking to start up what are confusingly also called problem-solving courts. They simply handle child support cases, in part by helping noncustodial parents find jobs instead of locking them up for missing child support payments.
To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail