CHATHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - Savannah's U.S. Representative Buddy Carter toured the Chatham County Jail Wednesday afternoon with Sheriff John Wilcher.
The pair is looking for ways to tackle mental health issues within the jail to spend tax dollars wisely and keep everyone safe. The Chatham County Detention Center has become one of the largest mental health facilities in the county. Rep. Carter and Sheriff Wilcher said that doesn't improve public safety and creates a huge burden for law enforcement.
"We're doing a disservice to those who are mentally ill who we are throwing in our jails," said Rep. Carter. "That's not where they need to be."
Sheriff Wilcher said officers regularly deal with inmates with mental health issues. Of almost 1,800 inmates in the jail, about 350 are prescribed psychotropic drugs. Wilcher said about 115 of those 350 need more intense mental health care.
"We need a facility in this county that we can take people to and offer them medications if they're arrested on misdemeanor charges," the sheriff said. "They (officers) arrested a girl Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday for criminal trespassing. She's a mental health person. We let her out of jail. She goes back to the house because she thinks she owns it."
Wilcher said that kind of reoccurring crime costs taxpayers.
"If I keep her in my jail, it costs you the taxpayers $70 a day," Wilcher said. "It's going to be 30 days before she goes to court. That's $2,100."
Rep. Carter made an April visit to the jail to discuss mental health, but Wednesday was the first time he, along with State Sen. Lester Jackson and Chatham County Commissioner Helen Stone, saw a video of an inmate attacking an officer inside of the jail.
"I'm concerned about their safety," said Rep. Carter. "After witnessing some of the videos that we saw today, they're in danger, and you know, any time that you have someone who is a danger to themselves or to others, then you have a situation that you have to deal with. We need to be smarter about this."
Sheriff Wilcher says finding another place for treatment has proven to be costly, time-consuming, and difficult, but Rep. Carter said the video only emphasizes the need for investment in a different kind of facility.
"If we would simply invest in diversion centers, simply invest in more mental health services, all of this will pay dividends to us in the future if we could simply do that," Carter said. "This is something that we've got to come to grips with because we are not doing a service to these inmates, to these patients, and we're not doing a service to society by just throwing them in jail and forgetting about them."
By providing better health care to those behind bars, the group hopes to improve safety for those working inside and those living outside. Budgets are tight and inmate care isn't always popular with voters, but Sen. Jackson said the possibility of increased safety may make people more apt to accept the need for change.
"I think taxpayers want to be protected, want to have a sense of protection in their homes and when they leave their homes, and this is an investment for protection of our community," Jackson said.
Jackson and Carter making those changes starts with federal and state lawmakers finding ways to support them, both monetarily and legislatively.
"(Making) small changes in the law, we get more money brought down to give better medical access, not only to the patients, but it'll also protect the officers," Jackson said. "In the long run, it protects the entire citizens because we get less people, less violent people, on our streets."
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), more than two million people with a serious mental illness are booked into jail each year, but half get no treatment in jail. NAMI reports housing an inmate with mental illness in jail costs $31,000 annually, while community mental health services cost about $10,000.