If people in Chattanooga do nothing to prevent the mentally ill from going to jail, the city will end up like larger cities across the country where jails become unequipped caregivers.
"Your large penal institutions have indeed become the mental health hospitals of the United States," said G.A. Bennett, director of support services with the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office. "And what you see at our jail is a microcosm of what's going on outside. We have anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of inmates with mental illness."
Bennett was one of five panelists who spoke Monday at the first in an expected series of public forums about starting a mental health court in Chattanooga. Ideally, a mental health court will open in Chattanooga within a year if not sooner, Bennett said.
A mental health court will save Hamilton County money, reduce rates of recidivism and show caring accountability toward people with mental illness, he said.
Nashville's mental health court reports a reduced recidivism rate, a cost saving of a $250,000 and 83 percent reduction in the number of jail days for people with mental health issues.
"Everyone from law enforcement and anyone who pays taxes benefits (from a mental health court)," said Bennett.
The strongest part of mental health court is that it would have judicial oversight, he said. It would get the person engaged in treatment programs.
Criminal Court Judge Don W. Poole said, "The hope is you get the treatment that will make you comply (with the law)."
Some people with mental illness have been charged with violent crimes. Most are picked up for minor offenses like public disorder, trespassing or public intoxication, court officials said.
In 2008, 26 percent of local inmates received psychotropic drugs. This year it's at 36 percent, and it will continue increasing unless the community does something to stop it, said Anna Protano-Biggs, assistant district public defender.
The committee is still establishing criteria for the court, she said, and it's using insight and experiences from people attending the public forums to fashion the court.
Bennett said the committee plans to seek grants to help fund the court.
Judge Christie Mahn Sell said the court would be voluntary to prevent negative connotations to the mentally ill. It will not be a "get out of jail free card," but it is a way to be caring and have accountability. Most of them want help, she said.
A mental health court is a step in the right direction, said city Public Safety Coordinator Paul Smith.
"Now people will have a chance to be heard," he said. "They will be treated medically, have a docket set aside for them where their service providers can come. You have clear representation and clear advocacy for these individuals."
People with mental health issues have a hard time making bail. Therefore they stay in jail up to 10 times longer than the average person.
"By the time they're released, they're coming out worse than when they went in," said Bennett. "This is an opportunity to change that entire situation."
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at email@example.com or 423-757-6431.