Crusading for change includes knowing when real change happens. Some states are making more progress than others in their efforts for prison reform. According to the New Republic, “One could reasonably argue that Georgia is doing more to reform its criminal justice system than any other state in the country—from sentencing to felon employment after release to juvenile detention.” The thrust of Georgia’s reform movement begins before sentencing occurs and extends to when an inmate reenters society.
Georgia’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, is setting the stage for meaningful reform. His statements about reform align with a knowledge-based view of the long-term effects of being incarcerated. Governor Deal seems to understand that incarceration should not define the lives of formerly incarcerated people (FIP). The governor’s understanding and willingness to do something about the perpetual taint of being incarcerated leads the way for a refreshing public policy of second chances for Georgia residents, and for FIPs, in Georgia.
The New Republic article quotes Deal concerning his philosophy of incarceration and restoration:
If you pay your dues to society, if you take advantage of the opportunities to better yourself, if you discipline yourself so that you can regain your freedom and live by the rules of society, you will be given the chance to reclaim your life. . . . I intend for Georgia to continue leading the nation with meaningful justice reform.
What’s Happening in Georgia’s Prison System?
Philosophies for change are only as good as the changes they bring forth. Let’s look at the changes made in Georgia. In a February 22, 2018, WABE report, Susanna Capelouto looks at the effects of prison reform through the eyes of the state’s chief justice, Harris Hines. Capelouto writes that Hines complimented Governor Deal’s administration for having a dramatic and positive effect on decreasing incarceration rates and quotes the chief justice as saying: “The number of African Americans entering the prison system in 2016 was the lowest since 1987” and “This, ladies and gentlemen, is historic and worth celebrating.” It’s not clear from the article why there is such a reduction in the number, but it’s likely caused by how Georgia’s courts are divided into specialty courts. These courts can enact appropriate probation and make referrals to appropriate rehabilitation services when necessary. These departures from automatic incarceration are infused with second-chance opportunities built into the criminal justice system.
Hines credits Georgia’s reduction of the number of people entering the state’s prison system to what are referred to as accountability courts (ACs). These courts cover different conduct associated with unique social issues and oversee only inmates considered low risk, nonviolent offenders. ACs include felony drug, mental health, veterans, and family law courts. The Council of Accountability Court Judges of Georgia’s mission is “to provide a unified framework that promotes and improves the quality, accessibility and administration of Accountability Courts.”
ACs have at their disposal options for focused rehabilitation instead of incarceration. While Hines admits that more work is necessary to serve Georgians with mental health issues, he notes, “More than half of all Georgians who were admitted to prisons in 2016 had a diagnosed Mental Health issue” and continues, “We simply cannot let our prisons be our front-line and most populous mental health facilities.”
The incarceration of people with mental health issues is also on the rise in California as well as other states. In my post The Mentally Ill Inmate’s Dilemma, I point out that California has had a 150 percent increase in the number of prisoners receiving treatment for serious mental disorders since 2000. I cite some eye-opening findings of Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project report, “When did prisons become acceptable mental healthcare facilities?”:
We spend far more on imprisonment of the mentally ill than we would otherwise spend on treatment and support. It is immoral because writing off another human being’s life is utterly contrary to our collective values and principles.
The numbers are staggering: over the past 15 years, the number of mentally ill people in prison in California has almost doubled. Today , 45 percent of state prison inmates have been treated for severe mental illness within the past year. The Los Angeles County Jail is “the largest mental health provider in the county.”
I would like to know more about how Georgia’s mental health AC court system is working to provide second chances for inmates as a replacement for knee-jerk incarceration of mentally challenged persons. I believe warehousing mentally ill men and women in our prison systems is exasperating and ignores a critical tenet of basic prison reform. If people can be found mentally incapable of standing trial, why can’t people be found mentally incapable of enduring the additional horror of being put in a prison’s general population? I cannot imagine the pain, but I have seen the effects.
On a related subject having to do with the link between childhood abuse and victims ending up in prison, see Childhood Abuse as a Precursor to Prison: The Ripple Effect.
If you have any practical insight on the workings of the Georgia mental health AC system, I’d like to learn more from you.
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