News: Savannah Georgia homeless prisoners policy 9/6/98

Peace through Reason (
Wed, 09 Sep 1998 21:23:50 -0400

		  New task force will determine best way to handle 
		  mentally ill or substance abusing homeless 

               By Mary Landers
               Savannah Morning News, September 6, 1998

               A homeless man, mumbling about a government
               conspiracy, urinates in a downtown square at

               He could be the responsibility of the police, a
               homeless shelter or the mental health system. And if
               he's been in Savannah any length of time he probably
               has been shuttled among all three, according to Pam
               Kean, director of community relations at Tidelands
               Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance
               Abuse Center. 

               Kean is organizing a task force that will help find the
               best treatment for non-violent offenders who are
               either mentally ill or substance abusers.

               The issue is financially important to Tidelands,
               because the mental health provider has to pay for the
               care of some of the patients who end up at Georgia
               Regional Hospital, the 190-bed, state-run psychiatric
               hospital on Eisenhower Drive. 

               With recent overcrowding at the Chatham County jail,
               Kean said at a Tidelands board meeting last month
               that the police were more likely to move would-be
               inmates to Georgia Regional.

               The jail, built for 1,224, was about 100 inmates over
               capacity last month. Chatham County Sheriff Al St.
               Lawrence agreed that Georgia Regional may see more
               clients from the cops when the jail gets too full. 

               "That very well may be," he said. "There's very little
               I can do. I have to cage everybody who's brought to

               He added that when police commit someone
               involuntarily they have to have a specific basis for
               their action -- the person must be a threat to
               themselves or others. 

               But that can be interpreted broadly, Kean said. 

               "They can use that if they're trying to get someone in
               off the street -- they're not eating right, not taking care
               of themselves," she said. "It can go beyond the
               suicidal piece."

               Dr. Gordon Ifill, clinical director at Georgia
               Regional, said the hospital evaluates every patient
               brought in and admits about 60 percent of them. The
               increase at the hospital last month "wasn't
               tremendous," he said, and many of the same patients
               had been there before.

               "Most of these were patients who were familiar to
               us," he said.

               That familiarity is just the point, said Kean, and one
               of the reasons for a task force, which is growing out
               of an informal group that's been meeting for a year.
               It's likely to include the Chatham County Crime
               Commission, Tidelands, the Mayor's office, the
               Sheriff's office, the Chatham County Jail, the
               Chatham-Savannah Counter Narcotics team, and the
               Chatham-Savannah Authority for the Homeless, Kean

               One solution the task force will explore is how to
               improve a system of identifying mentally ill
               nonviolent offenders in the courts.

               The idea makes sense to Harris Odell, an attorney
               who is the vice chair of Tidelands board and a
               Chatham County commissioner. Some of the
               misdemeanors committed by clients he's defended are
               not the result of criminal intent but of mentally ill
               citizens failing to take their medicines, he said. 

               At a preliminary hearing the court needs to know that,
               he said.

               Jail administrator Gary Blake agreed that
               incarcerating some mentally ill persons isn't always
               the best solution. 

               "They're being charged with offenses to get them off
               the streets," he said. "But jail is not the place for
               persons with mental illness."

               It's a place where many end up anyway, especially
               with the deinstitutionalization of mental health
               patients, according to Nic D'Alesandro, forensic
               services coordinator at Georgia Regional.

               "Since the push toward de-hospitalization, we've
               almost equally increased the inmates in the mental
               health unit in the jail," said D'Alesandro, who
               moonlights as a mental health consultant at the
               Chatham County Jail. 

               The task force will also be looking at establishing a
               drug court in Chatham County. In it, non-violent
               offenders on a first drug-related offense could be
               offered treatment instead of jail.

               "Some of that is happening now but it's not
               city-wide," Kean said.

               Drugs courts have proven effective elsewhere.
               Broward County, Fla., which encompasses Ft.
               Lauderdale, has run one since 1991. It requires first-,
               second- and third-time non-violent offenders to
               undergo an intensive treatment process including
               outpatient sessions daily for the first 60 days, and on
               a less frequent basis for the remainder of a year. 

               "The carrot is you'll get the charges dropped," said
               program director Guy Wheeler. "But I am going to
               make you work for it."

               The reward for the community may be a drop in
               recidivism, Wheeler said. About 30-40 percent of
               drug offenders who go to jail become repeat
               offenders. But only about 10 percent of those in the
               drug court program return to their drug habit, he said.

               The program is also cheaper than incarceration. With
               an annual budget of $1.4 million, it treats about 800
               drug abusers, but also collects fees from the clients --
               $250,000 last year.

               That compares favorably to the $20,000 minimum per
               year it costs to keep an inmate in prison, Wheeler

               In the meantime, however, substance abuse and
               mental illness are problems people don't solve easily,
               said Lisa Rossow, program coordinator for the
               Homeless Authority, 

               "Once it becomes an issue in their lives it remains an
               issue," she said. "It's just how they cope with it."

               Health reporter Mary Landers can be reached at

               Web posted Sunday, September 6, 1998

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