Georgia's criminal justice overhaul bill, passed Thursday by the Georgia House and now headed to the Senate, is expected to raise standards and accountability for a growing wave of drug and mental health courts, according to a Hall County superior court judge.
The House voted 164-1 in favor of House Bill 1176, which cleared a joint legislative panel on the issue earlier this week and appears to have the approval of major stakeholders, including Gov. Nathan Deal.
"I think we're all really happy about how it is turning out," said Superior Court Judge Kathlene F. Gosselin, who oversees the mental health court at the Hall County Courthouse.
The bill offers an emphasis on alternative courts to address substance abuse and mental health issues, as well as sentencing reform. Hall County has been a leader in establishing such alternative courts.
One of the aims touted by supporters of the bill is to save tax money by improving rehabilitation rates.
According to the committee, Georgia's prison population has more than doubled in the past two decades to more than 56,000 inmates at a taxpayer cost of more than $1 billion annually.
Alternative courts seek to address possible root causes for criminal activity such as drug addiction and mental illnesses.
Due in part to a decline in accessibility to mental health service, county jails across the nation have reported an increase in offenders with mental illnesses, practically turning the jails into mental clinics, some court officials say.
"Jails are not equipped to handle mental health services," Gosselin told The Times Friday. "People don't get better in jail."
They can also end up costing taxpayers' money in repeat trips to jail.
Mental health courts, similar to their drug court counterparts, focus on treatment of patients' conditions over retribution. The program keeps a close eye on voluntary participants' progress, use of prescribed medication and counseling.
Those programs have won over local law enforcement officials, too.
"We here in Hall County have had the benefit of pioneering many of the programs that the bill promotes ... like the Drug Court, HELP court (Mental Health) and DUI courts," Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic wrote in a statement to The Times. "Our experience in helping to establish and, of course, working closely with these courts over the years has given us an opportunity to see firsthand a great deal of success associated with their work."
To help pay for alternative courts, the Deal administration has signaled it would provide additional funding and phase in the plan over two years.
Mental health courts are relatively a new phenomenon and still evolving. Because of that standards and oversight for programs vary, said Gosselin. The new bill provides a system for reporting success rates that are peer reviewed by experienced judges.
"It's an effort to add some standardization and more accountability to the drug and mental health courts," she said. "I think that's what needed to have this level of funding."
The Senate is expected to take up the proposal next week, the final week of the General Assembly session.
Associated Press contributed to this story.