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Mental health court to start in July

COVINGTON -- Newton County will have its first mental health court beginning in July.

The goal of the court is to identify people with mental health problems who are in jail or subject to being sentenced to jail and to supervise them and provide treatment so they can safely function in society, according to Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn.

The court will be funded by the state, and Ozburn is also applying for a grant from the Department of Justice. He recently requested and received approval for a letter of support from the Board of Commissioners to be included in the grant application.

Only non-violent offenders who have been diagnosed with a mental disorder are eligible, and must enter a guilty plea and be ordered to complete mental health court as a condition of their sentence.

About 20 percent of inmates at the Newton County Detention Center at any given time have a diagnosed mental disorder, Ozburn said. It cost the Sheriff's Office more than $200,000 last year to provide mental health treatment for inmates.

Many individuals are not being properly treated for their condition and commit misdemeanors, such as trespassing or loitering, just to return to jail so they can get their medication, he said. Mental health courts are operating in places such as Winder, Athens, Augusta and Cobb and Gwinnett counties, and Ozburn said he has visited some of these courts and spoken with judges.

"Every judge has told me this is one of the most fulfilling experiences they've had because it gives them the opportunity to actually help people become productive citizens and breaks that cycle of going in and out of jail just to be on medications. It cuts down on recidivism and it saves the county money," he said.

A similar court will start in Walton, the other county in the Alcovy Judicial Circuit, in January.