Cherokee County Probate Court Judge Keith Wood has led the charge to form the court and made the case to the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners at its last meeting to submit a grant application to Georgia’s criminal justice coordinating council in the amount of about $160,000.
The board approved, and the application was submitted Monday, Wood said. Now, Wood and his allies in starting the new court must wait until sometime in May to get their answer, he said.
Cherokee sits at No. 7on the list of Georgia’s 10 most populated counties. Wood told the board that it’s one of only three counties in that list that doesn’t have a mental health court or plans for one in the near future. All counties bordering Cherokee also have such courts, with the exception of Bartow, he added.
The mental health court in Cherokee County would have similar structure to drug and DUI courts in the county and could give mentally ill offenders a more effective track to recovery and, hopefully, “reduce the number of days they may spend in jail” and increase the number of days they’re “out being productive citizens,“ Wood said.
The court would accomplish that by providing the offenders with access to counseling, medication, help with housing and other services, Wood said.
The need for such a court in the county, Wood said Monday, is not specific to Cherokee but something judges all over the country have been seeing for years: the same mentally-ill offenders showing up on court dockets time and time again for the same or similar crimes.
In large part, he said, with the proper treatment and resources, the fate of such offenders could swing the other way, and they would pose no danger to the community.
“These aren’t hardened criminals,” Wood said. “These are the mentally ill.”
Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department Major Karen Johnson, one of Wood’s collaborators on the project, said Monday the trouble is that these offenders are being treated similarly to hardened criminals when they turn up in jails, simply because it’s the only place for them to go.
Johnson said with mental health facilities around the country closing up shop, the jails often have to step in.
“Jails have become the mental health facilities, because there is nowhere to put them,” she said.
But “jails are not where they need to go,” Johnson said, because the proper resources aren’t present to help these largely nonviolent inmates.
The Cherokee County Detention Center is no
“At any given time I could have 15 to 23 percent of my population on psychotropic meds,” she said, and she sees “everything from post traumatic stress disorder to bipolar disorder to major depression and schizophrenia.”
“There’s major mental illness in here,” she said, and “The families just kind of throw their hands up, because there’s no resources.”
But Johnson, Wood and their other partners in the call for a mental health court in Cherokee County hope that the addition might give these offenders a chance for a better, more stable life and save the taxpayers of the county money.
Johnson said it’s about time.
“We’ve been trying the same things over and over,” she said. “You know what they say the definition of insanity is: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”