Mike Klein Online

Hundreds in Georgia Prisons Remain Locked Up After Earning Parole

Mike Klein

Georgia penitentiaries continue to feed, clothe and pay medical expenses for hundreds of inmates who were approved for parole but cannot be released because they have nowhere to live.  About two-thirds are convicted sex offenders.   About one-third require mental illness treatment but otherwise they are not considered a threat to public safety.

“We have got to do something about the housing situation, about the need for these individuals to have stable housing in order to be able to assimilate back into communities,” state Rep. Jay Neal said during a hearing that he chaired this week.  Testimony was heard from officials at state pardons and parole and community affairs, the Clayton County sheriff’s office and Support Housing Atlanta.

Having nowhere to go means inmates approved for parole have no family able or willing to take them, and no publicly supported housing facility willing to accept them.  One of the challenges associated with Georgia corrections reform is, where will released inmates go when they leave prisons?

The 2011 state special council on criminal justice reform delivered its report before Thanksgiving.  The emphasis was on establishing alternatives to incarceration to reduce budget devouring prison system costs.  The new Legislature has been in town nearly a month.  The committee that will turn the special council recommendations into a bill is currently drafting the legislation.

Governor Nathan Deal

Governor Nathan Deal’s criminal justice reform cards are on the table: $35.2 million for additional prison beds, $10 million for accountability courts expansion, $5.7 million to convert three pre-release centers to residential substance abuse treatment centers and $1.4 million to fund additional parole officers.  Those priorities were named in his State of the State address and also in his proposed FY 2013 budget.

Moving away from a strategy that emphasized incarceration to one focused on alternative treatment for non-violent persons who do not pose any public safety threat means the state criminal justice system must change the tools it needs.  Beds would be reserved for bad guys.  Other people who need treatment more than incarceration would be placed into community settings

This week a House committee met for 90 minutes to discuss the lack of available housing statewide for paroled inmates.  State parole director Michael Nail told the committee Georgia currently has 367 former sex offenders and 147 people with treatable mental illness needs who are still locked up even though they served all required time and were approved for release from the prison system.

How long might they stay locked up?  Most inmates are freed within 30-to-45 days after the parole board grants release.  That is not the case for hard-to-release inmates.    Nail said, “We’ve had inmates (who) have been there two years beyond their parole date simply because they have nowhere to go.”

Patients who require mental health treatment are a special challenge.  The systemic approach to help them is a larger question than the impact it has on criminal justice reform.  Georgia and the federal government entered into an October, 2010 consent decree that requires the state to transfer mental illness patients out of hospitals and into community settings.  The state must be able to serve 9,000 persons on a strict timetable that concludes not later than July 1, 2015.

Paul Bolster is director of Support Housing Atlanta.  Support Housing conducted a survey of mental health patients being held in several metropolitan area county jails.  Bolster said inmates were asked where they would live if they were released.  Twenty percent said they would be immediately homeless and 12 percent more said they did not know.

State Parole Director Michael Nail

“Thirty-five hundred people with serious mental illness will be discharged from metro jails within a year’s time to, probably, homelessness,” Bolster told the House committee.  “This explains why you have recidivism.”  The survey was conducted in Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb county jails, and statistics were incorporated from Fulton County.

Clayton is Georgia’s third smallest county by land mass, but it has the state’s fifth largest county population.  Last year the county processed 26,000 prisoners.  Those inmates consume between $7-to-$8 million annually in medicine and other health care expenses.  About 900 of the jail’s 1,700 capacity prisoners require mental health services and between 300-to-400 require intensive mental health treatment.  Sheriff Kem Kimbrough said those services could be provided at less expense outside a jail setting.

Kimbrough’s varied assignments have included work on the implementation of mental health community service boards and he holds an Emory University law degree.   “We’re spending god awful amounts of money to keep them behind bars when the reality is we could probably spend less to support them in treatment, support them in housing, get them back out into the community and maybe even rehabilitate them into quality citizens,” said Kimbrough.

Governor Deal and the special council on criminal justice reform advocated expansion of accountability courts, including drug courts, that substitute strict monitoring and treatment programs for incarceration when the offender is not a public safety threat.  The Clayton drug court program has 30 participants.

“We could have up to 300 folks that would meet drug court parameters but for one component, one very key factor, that they have stable residential housing outside the jail,” Kimbrough said.  “That is the number one thing that gets them knocked out.  If they don’t have a place to stay that is stable then they are not eligible for the drug court program.”

Clayton County Sheriff Kem Kimbrough

Pardons and parole, in partnership with corrections and community affairs, operates a program known by its acronym RPH – Residential Problem Housing.   RPH residence slots – don’t call them homes, folks do not get their own home – are available to paroled offenders who have mental health treatment or substance abuse backgrounds, but slots are not available to convicted sex offenders.

RPH began to place former offenders in 2006.  It uses primarily federal funds to pay $600 per month for room-and-board for three months to help paroled offenders return to the community.  Almost 600 people have been placed in RPH housing at a total cost of $874,000.  “That’s a lot of money but if this program did not exist and these inmates stayed incarcerated, it would have cost $5.3 million for that time frame,” parole director Nail said.  Currently the state has 44 licensed RHP facilities.

Successful re-entry into the community reduces recidivism, the rate at which prisoners return to jail.  Having somewhere to live is considered essential for transition to have a chance.

“We can get you clean, sober, on your meds and everything else, and then we send you back to the house where there is no order, all the people around you are engaged in drug activity, no one is checking on you to make sure are taking your meds,” said Clayton Sheriff Kimbrough.  “All of those things are going to put that person right back into the mix.  They are coming back to the county jail.”

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

February 2, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thousands of Mentally Ill Patients Will Leave State Psychiatric Hospitals

Mike Klein

The changing face of Georgia health care looks something like this: Thousands of mentally ill patients will begin to leave state psychiatric hospitals as they move into community care settings. Programs that serve millions of Georgians will be scaled back even as public sector employees pay more for coverage and receive less in their state health benefit plan.

How Georgia will make decisions about health care dollars was the focus Thursday when the state’s three leading public health executives testified during Senate – House appropriations committee hearings. Next year health care expenditures will be nearly $14.7 billion. Governor Nathan Deal’s proposed budget includes $4.1 billion in state dollars. The rest are federal funds.

Two of the state’s three large public health agencies – Community Health and Human Services – expect to lose hundreds of millions of state dollars in the Governor’s Office proposed budget. Program services will be eliminated or reduced affecting young and old, infirm and able-bodied.

The third large agency — Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities — will receive an increase in part because the state must transfer thousands of patients with mental illness or developmental disabilities out of state psychiatric hospitals and into community settings.

This happened because the U.S. Justice Department sued Georgia after an investigation found the state was not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that Georgia had unlawfully segregated some patients who had disabilities.

Last October the Justice Department also said the investigation “found that preventable deaths, suicides and assaults occurred with alarming frequency in the hospitals.” Under the settlement agreement Georgia must transfer 9,000 patients before July 2015 and it must stop admitting developmental disabilities patients to state hospitals this summer.

It was not lost on anyone who was in the committee room Thursday morning that less than two weeks earlier a gunman shot 19 persons, including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, during a Tucson event. A nine-year-old girl, a federal judge and four other persons died.

Behavioral Health Commissioner Frank Shelp acknowledged that, “People with severe mental illness who have not received proper services, if they are neglected and allowed to simply move about, bad things happen eventually, as we’ve seen recently in our country.”

He asked that legislators remember, “Mental illness is a spectrum condition. Some people with severe diagnosis still operate virtually autonomously and move about in the community and even maintain jobs and do all kinds of things whereas someone with the very same diagnosis can be virtually completely incapacitated and need complete care, and everything in-between.”

Shelp said many more than 9,000 Georgians are afflicted with schizophrenia; he estimated the number at closer to 70,000. Behavioral Health requested $10.3 million in the amended budget and $54 million next year to fund the settlement agreement changes.

Public health dollars pay for many other services including Medicaid, PeachCare, inpatient and outpatient health care, HIV testing, chemical hazard investigations, food safety inspections, assistance to unwed teenage mothers, state hospitals, infectious disease tests, adult and child care services, indigent care, the state’s vital records program, even poison and rabies control.

The largest piece of the state health budget goes to the Department of Community Health. The Governor’s Office recommended $11.936 billion for DCH next year, down from $12.1 billion.

Community Health Commissioner David Cook spent nearly an hour describing program cuts before he asked legislators to support a $10 million bond package that would enable Georgia to draw down $90 million in federal matching funds to implement health care reforms.

“This money will be used to create a revised eligibility program to determine Medicaid eligibility and it’s something that I believe we desperately need to do,” Cook said. I’ll just speak for our area; the IT infrastructure area is in need of help and I am asking for your support on that.”

Medicaid will cost more in state dollars because federal stimulus funds are going away. Cook said the state must replace more than $600 million during each of the next two years. Medicaid and PeachCare programs administered by the agency serve 1.6 million Georgians.

DCH also administers the state health benefit plan. Cook said the 2010 audit showed a $17 million reserve. “That may seem like a lot of money but that represents an average of two days of claims. We are running on a very thin margin in the state health benefit plan.”

This year 700,000 state employees, teachers and retirees will pay higher spouse and tobacco use surcharges. Basic premiums will increase, as will co-payments. Cook said the real cost to employees will be an additional 10%. DCH has been asked to identify another $37 million in new state health benefit plan savings. “We need to rebuild those reserves,” Cook insisted.

Human Services Commissioner Clyde Reese testified a proposed 4% reduction in the agency’s next budget will zero-out all state funds for child care facility licensing, family violence services and needy families’ assistance. Some state funds will be replaced with federal dollars.

“We are down now to bone. There is no more fat left,” Reese said. “There hasn’t been for quite a while. The priority is the must work phase. Things that we would like to do, things that some people feel the department should do; those have to take a back seat.” Reese said the priority at Human Resources is preservation of children’s and family services caseworkers.

Former state representative and newly elected Labor Commissioner Mark Butler returned to familiar surroundings as Thursday’s final witness. Butler said Georgia must pay $6 million to the federal government this year for interest on funds borrowed to write unemployment checks.

The state Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund ran out of money in 2009.  Weekly checks to jobless Georgians have been written primarily with hundreds of millions of dollars borrowed from the federal government. Georgia will be on the hook to Washington for principal and interest.

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

January 22, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment