Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Decriminalizing Mental Ilness - Georgia's Progressive Approach

Should we care that this inmate is a non-violent, dual-diagnosis case who came into the criminal justice system due to mental illness and substance abuse? According to Georgia Corrections Commissioner, Brian Owens, we should.  In an article titled, "Decriminalizing Mental Illness in Ga.", full article (Ranking, Teegardin, 2012), Brain is quoted as saying, "I think it's about time to decriminalize mental illness." 

With the state looking to save money on the cost of incarceration, Governor Nathan Deal proposed a solution to save $264 million in costs to house prisoners over the next five years.  In a landmark move, fourteen (14) "day reporting centers" will be formed and staffed by mental health counselors. The day centers are earmarked for non-violent offenders with a history of mental health issues, as well as dual-diagnosis (mental health and drug and alcohol issues). According to Owens, once an offender with a history of mental illness enters the prison system, a permanent cycle begins.  This goal for for this approach is to lower recidivism rates, save money, and make communities safer.

According to Owens, the cost per day of housing a prisoner in a state facility is $50.00, versus $14.00 per day to staff the day reporting center.  Also, allowing the person to remain in the community while dealing with his challenges on a daily basis, will hopefully provide him/her with the tools necessary to be a productive member of society.  The day reporting centers will provide programs on substance abuse, criminal thinking, education, and employment issues.

Owens makes a poignant statement by saying, "It's about understanding the needs of mental illness...not to mention the ethical part of it.  It's just the right thing to do." It is a refreshing expression of concern for those struggling with mental health issues who continue to be stuck in the loop of the correctional system.

Although I tend to applaud Owens for his ideas, this modern approach is not without pitfalls and ethical concerns.   Some General Principles and Standards from the American Psychological Association (APA) Code of Ethics that need to be considered in this scenario are:

Standard 9.01, Basis for Assessments - How will the assessments be given to the offenders, by whom, and what is the criteria that will decide success of failure for the various programs?

Standard 9.02 c, Use of Assessments - Language barriers will need to be considered with regard to assessments.

Standard 9.03 - Informed Consent - all mental health providers will need to adhere to this rule to ensure receiving consent prior to any use of assessments for the programs.

Standard 9.05 - Test Construction - any assessments used to determine an offender's ability to meet program requirements, will need to be appropriate, scientific, and current.

The mental health providers will also need to be monitored to ensure that all operations of the centers are ethical.  Any of the following ethical violations are possible to occur in this more relaxed setting:

3.01 - Unfair Discrimination
3.02 - Sexual Harassment
3.03 - Other Harassment
3.05 - Multiple Relationships

I think that Georgia is onto something good with this approach to incarceration and mental health.  Prisons do not help people with mental health issues and I see this approach as a way to make a change in individuals, communities, and society, although it is not without its' challenges.

Rankin, B., & Teegardin, C. (2012, July 16). Decriminalizing mental illness in Ga.: Georgia corrections chief works on treatment options for 9,382 inmates. Retrieved from http://www.correctionsone.com/correctional-psychology/articles/5826367-Decriminalizing-mental-illness-in-Ga


  1. Very novel idea, to decriminalize mental illness...sadly, mental illness is why so many people end up in our criminal justice system, and then just do not get the help or services they need to get better for reentry into society...

  2. Very much in support of this progressive and positive endeavor. Long overdue.

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