Savannah-Chatham Mental Health Court graduates eleventh class

Savannah-Chatham Mental Health Court graduates eleventh class

CHATHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - Some crime prevention measures in Savannah are having some impressive results.

One of them is the Savannah-Chatham Mental Health Court. It held its eleventh graduation Thursday.
The program helps mentally ill offenders stay out of the criminal justice system through community-based treatment. Before entering the Mental Health Court, the group of eight graduates had amassed 242 criminal charges in Chatham County and 134 arrests combined.

During the two-year program, this same group had only one new arrest and two new criminal charges. One of the graduates told WTOC he's a totally different man than he used to be.
"I had flipped out not taking my medicine and messing up in the street, on drugs. I thought that was the cool life to live, but that really a'int no cool life to live," said graduate Benny Wright.
Wright and his fellow graduates have all spent their fair share of time in courtrooms before, but never like this. He says the program turned his life around.

"103,000 degrees," he said. "All the way around."

Throughout the two-year program, participants must attend daily mental health and drug treatment, go to support meetings and submit to random drug tests. All under the supervision of a judge and probation officer.

The idea is to get at the root of the problem for these repeat offenders.

"That's the key. It's permanent. We're not just locking somebody up for six months, letting them out, and then hoping they don't do it again. That doesn't work," said Spencer Lawton, former district attorney.

It doesn't work for the offender, the jail or your tax dollars.

"Any program we can do like this that will keep folks in need of medical attention outside of our jail, costing the tax payers money there, is a blessing to our community," said Chatham County Sheriff Roy Harris.

And the sheriff has a point. A revolving door at the county jail can get expensive. It costs about $58 per day to house an inmate.

That's 10 times more than the cost of putting them through the Mental Health Court program, and potentially millions saved over the eight years the program has been running.

"Also, when they graduate successfully and have gotten the control back over their own lives, then there's a long future of crimes they are not committing," said Lawton.

And that's a future Benny Wright is proud to look forward to.

"I see myself now setting good goals for my life," he said. "Maintaining life and staying sober and clean."
The Mental Health Court is just one of several specialty courts in Chatham County. Similar programs exist for drug and alcohol abusing offenders as well as a veteran's court.

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