Christopher Brasher, chief judge of Fulton County Superior Court, told a Buckhead audience on March 12 that criminals with mental health issues are one of the biggest and costliest problems in the state’s justice system.

Appearing at a meeting of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, Brasher said that troubled inmates in Georgia’s prisons would be better off with alternative programs to incarceration.

Christopher Brasher, chief judge of Fulton County Superior Court. (Special)

“Here is a sad truth: 40 years ago we had places in our society where people with chronic mental health problems went to. Those were terrible places – they were mental hospitals. We don’t have those anymore, but we do have prisons and jails,” he said.

The prison budget in Georgia is $1.3 billion this year, according to Brasher, and $200 million of that is spent on mental health treatment and psychotropic medications for an imprisoned population of 53,000.

“Next to personnel, the biggest cost to prisons and jails is mental health treatment, a problem exacerbated by substance abuse and poor choices,” Brasher said. “If we proactively try to get people out of the system who are suffering from a mental health problem, give them incentives to get better, be compliant with medication, go to group [therapy], and take their [drug] tests, then we’re going to have better outcomes.”

Brasher, a Sandy Springs resident, hailed a Fulton County program called Pre-Arrest Diversion that aims to “reduce the number of people in jails who would be better served by social and behavioral health services,” according to the county’s description. It allows police officers to identify candidates for the service instead of arresting and putting them in jail.

The county also has a number of special treatment courts that cater to individuals with mental health and substance disorders. “The biggest is Drug Court,” Brasher said. “It’s for someone who has a demonstrated history of drug addiction and is willing to subject himself to a treatment group, testing, etcetera. If we put them in prison, statistics show they’ll be an addict in dormancy while they’re inside. They’ll get out and go right back to it again.”

Another is a court specifically for documented veterans with similar issues. “We’ve got room to grow each of those programs. I hope that we do, because they are successful, but the reality is that every time we try to put someone in, we’re taking a chance on them that they’re going to do their part.”

Brasher has a theory about repeat offenders. “People who get caught a lot are really bad at what they do, because they engage in concrete thinking: ‘I see, I want, I take.’ These are not high thinkers. Whatever is causing that — obstinacy, drug abuse, or mental health problems — that cycle has to be broken. If it’s obstinacy then they go to prison. If it’s drug abuse or mental health, they need treatment.”

The BCN and other local organizations have expressed concern that local crime is driven by repeated offenders released on bond.

Asked about the continuing number of repeat offenders caught in Buckhead, Brasher responded, “Repeat offenders used to be defined by how many times they had been arrested. In the criminal justice system that doesn’t really have an impact, because we now count how many times people have been convicted.” He added a caveat: “That’s not to say there aren’t people on that list who weren’t previously convicted.”

Addressing the 60 people in the room, Brasher said, “There’s no doubt that you all want better outcomes from public safety in Fulton County. I’ve told you some of the things that we’ve done to try and address that and they’re continuing efforts, and they’re not perfect, but one of them is to try and transfer more and more repeat offenders out of the non-complex system and into our courts. These are people who need to be in front of Superior Court judges and not in front of magistrates. That’s why we’ve doubled this [number] in the last three years.”