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Each year, an estimated 2 million people with serious mental illnesses are admitted to jails across the nation. Almost three-quarters of these adults also have drug and alcohol use problems. Once incarcerated, individuals with mental illnesses tend to stay longer in jail and, upon release, are at a higher risk of returning to incarceration than those without these illnesses.

Fulton County Commissioner Joan Garner, known as the health commissioner, knew something must be done to address these statistics and improve the lives of people with mental illness in Atlanta. Through her work with the National Association of Counties, she was introduced to the Stepping Up Initiative. Commissioner Garner quickly realized Stepping Up provided the detailed roadmap and strategies necessary to reduce the number of people with mental illness involved in the justice system. Through her leadership, Fulton County unanimously adopted a Stepping Up Resolution in May 2016.

To bring Stepping Up to scale, Superior Court of Fulton County began convening the Fulton County Justice and Mental Health Task Force. The task force includes local and state partners from the judiciary, law enforcement, community corrections, consumers, advocates, mental health and substance abuse service providers, and other stakeholders. The task force is responsible for creating data-driven action plans and recommendations that improve the use of public safety and behavioral health resources, maximize impact, and measurably improve outcomes for people with mental illness involved in the justice system. The systems-level reform recommendations target increased opportunities for treatment, a reduction in the number of people booked into jail with mental illness, new validated mental health screening tools, and fewer days in jail for those persons requiring treatment. 

Superior Court Judge Doris Downs, chair of the task force states: “Our Court’s efforts to divert individuals with behavioral health diagnoses from punishment through incarceration to treatment and restoration have been seriously hampered by the lack of collaboration between the health care providers and the justice system partners. These efforts provide us with an excellent opportunity to work through the challenges and bridge the gap.”

Planning and implementation efforts have been supported through $1 million dollars in grant funds from the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program (JMHCP), which supports innovative cross-system collaboration to improve responses and outcomes for individuals with mental illness or co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders who come into contact with the justice system.

In addition to grant funding, Fulton County leadership continues its commitment to use the task force work to inform the behavioral health strategy in the county’s criminal justice system. Implementation of the task force top priority recommendations and business cases have been financially supported by the Fulton County Board of Commissioners.