One of six inmates in Georgia prisons is mentally ill, and Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens says that’s too many. “I think it’s about time to decriminalize mental illness,” he tells the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Owens acknowledges that many mentally ill inmates are dangerous and should remain locked up. He points out that hundreds, perhaps thousands, do no represent a threat to the public and should be in treatment, not prison. “What I’ve observed over the years is that if you have a mental illness, the first time you enter the criminal justice system you’re there forever,” he said. “You’re cycling in, cycling out, cycling back in. It never ends if you don’t get the help you need.”
Of the more than 9,300 mentally ill inmates, roughly 6,100 were convicted of crimes involving violence and sexual abuse. About 3,300 are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, such as forgery, shoplifting, and drug possession. At $51 per inmate a day, housing these inmates costs taxpayers more than $60 million a year. This year, the General Assembly approved legislation designed to reserve costly prison beds for the state’s most dangerous criminals. It is a first step in Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan to save $264 million in prison spending over five years by diverting nonviolent drug and property offenders to programs that cost a small fraction of prison. Legislators approved Deal’s request to quintuple funding to $10 million for “accountability courts,” including those for the mentally ill, and the process for distributing that money begins this week.