Georgia puts its mentally ill in prison instead of psychiatric hospitals or community-based facilities, says the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The systemic failure of the community mental health system is overcrowding state prisons and county jails, creating a new form of institutional care for the chronically mentally ill because they can’t get help anywhere else. At least 15 percent of inmates in state prisons and in county jails have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, a state judicial task force reports. Many of them serve time in jail or prison only to be released, stop taking the medications they need to stay well, and get picked up again for mostly nonviolent crimes.
The recidivism now rampant in the failed system costs taxpayers millions, says Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Sears. “We have to break the cycle,” she said. “We have to start linking these defendants with the services they need or, as we now know, we will keep seeing them over and over again.” The $500 million that the state now spends annually on community mental health care is simply inadequate for the intensive level of help this chronically ill population needs, the Journal-Constitution says in an editorial. In other states with better records than Georgia in caring for the mentally ill, spending is targeted at case management, using not just psychiatrists and nurses but also mental health social workers. Treatment teams are established to help patients find decent housing, hold a job and get the array of social services they need to stay well. It is not a cheap system.