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County starts HELP court
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Dawson County inmates dealing with mental health issues will begin receiving help for the first time through the countys new HELP court.

I have personal knowledge of the success of accountability courts, and I am encouraged to learn that Dawson County has taken this step to improve public safety in order to combat recidivism, said Gov. Nathan Deal. I look forward to hearing the results of Dawson Countys new HELP court.

The program, modeled after the countys successful drug and DUI courts, assesses the mental health needs of individuals who have been arrested. Inmates are eligible for medication and counseling as part of the program.

The first court session is scheduled for tomorrow, Feb. 28, with eight to 10 inmates participating.

Last year at the request of Judge (Kathlene) Gosselin, I visited HELP court graduation in Hall County and found it very inspiring, said County Commission Chair Mike Berg. I felt that citizens that have these types of problems have a place to go.

Jessi Emmett is the clinical coordinator for Dawson Countys program. After spending three years as an associate licensed counselor, she became a licensed professional counselor (LPC) earlier this month. She is a Level II Certified Addiction Counselor, and has been a National Certified Counselor since 2009. She received her Masters degree in Professional Counseling from Argosy University in Atlanta, 2008.

The goal of the program is to link resources, develop and strengthen individuals, and to help them get better, she said. Judges dont want to leave people (with mental health issues) sitting in jail. The goal is to get them treatment and counseling.

Judge Gosselin will preside over the HELP Court with assistance from Judge Jason Deal.

We have been looking for alternative ways to help folks that have mental health issues, said Deal. We are locking people up that have mental health issues, and we continue to lock them up repeatedly without addressing the underlying causes. It costs the county lots of money to house those folks.

According to Sheriff Billy Carlisle, it costs $30 to $35 a day to house one inmate in Dawson County.

Over the years, the state of Georgia has cut back some funding in the mental health area, and this has caused the local jails to become mental health beds, said Carlisle. Many of the people being incarcerated today have some type of mental health issue, and many of them are being incarcerated simply due to there not being anyplace else to house them.

With this happening, the local counties are being forced to pick up the tab of housing these individuals. It is my hope that the new HELP court can get these individuals out of our jail and back into their homes concentrating on getting them the needed counseling and medications.

Gov. Deal has made it a priority to reduce jail costs.

If these inmates can be shifted from jail to treatment programs, the county and its taxpayers realize significant savings.

Emmett cited comparisons with the Hall County HELP, where the program started in 2004.

(In the) 24 months prior to participation in the Hall County Mental Health Court, graduates cost the county $165,250. Since graduating from the court, these individuals have cost the county $8,100. A cost savings of $157,150, said Emmett. We hope that the Dawson County program will afford such savings to the county.

Approximately 31 people, or 18 percent, of Dawson County inmates reported mental health issues during booking, according to Emmett.

Emmett said that mental health issues affect the entire family not just the individual who has been arrested.

The HELP program is funded through a $69,000 grant from the state that runs through June 30.

Major Jeff Johnson is the detention center administrator for the Dawson County Sheriffs office.

For the success of the program, it is important to have a law enforcement liaison to help identify potential candidates, he said. My role affords me the opportunity to observe and evaluate inmates in need and assist in determining if referrals are warranted.

Johnson added that the goal is to link participants with mental health issues to community resources that will allow them to live healthy, productive lives and reduce or eliminate future involvement with the criminal justice system.

To be eligible for the program, individuals must be in jail, charged with a crime, or on probation/parole in Dawson County, and be a resident of Dawson County. Individuals may not participate if charged with one of Georgias seven deadly sins: murder, rape, armed robbery (with a firearm), aggravated child molestation, sodomy, sexual battery, or voluntary manslaughter. A bill passed by the Georgia General Assembly in 1994 named these seven sins.

The program targets the criminal adult population. Individuals need to meet clinical criteria such as having bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, co-occurring disorders such as mental health and substance abuse, among other criteria.

HELP stands for health, empowerment, linkage and possibilities.