The following article is an opinion piece and reflects the views of only the author and not those of TheGeorgiaVirtue.com
By State Representative Sandra Scott (D-Rex)
Georgia can take a commendable step forward in addressing the unique challenges faced by individuals with mental illnesses within the criminal justice system. During the 2023 legislative session, I introduced two groundbreaking bills that would address the pressing need for improved mental health outcomes in Georgia’s penal institutions. First, House Bill 232 emphasizes transparency and sheds light on the health, safety and conditions of inmates. On the other hand, House Bill 233 would establish alternatives to imprisonment and focus on mental health treatment and rehabilitation. These measures represent a transformative approach that prioritizes compassion, rehabilitation and long-term solutions. Our state legislature can lead the way in creating a criminal justice system that addresses the underlying mental health needs of individuals in its custody.
Georgia must start with increasing transparency in our criminal justice system. HB 232 would accomplish this mission by requiring the public disclosure of specific data related to inmate health, safety and conditions. Using this data, the state can then aim to identify areas that require improvement. This transparency effort will also hold correctional facilities accountable as they are responsible for providing adequate mental health care, promoting the well-being of inmates with mental illnesses and preventing further harm. By shining a light on the conditions experienced by individuals with mental illnesses, Georgia can foster an environment of continuous improvement and ensure that their rights and dignity are upheld.
Additionally, the legislature must promote mental health alternatives that do more than shackle those who are suffering from diagnosable mental illnesses. As such, HB 233 acknowledges that punishment alone is not a sustainable solution for individuals with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system. HB 233 would allow Georgia to address the root causes of criminal behavior and provide rehabilitation opportunities. This legislation reflects an understanding that mental health support and treatment are pivotal in breaking the cycle of incarceration. By diverting individuals with mental illnesses to appropriate treatment programs and community-based alternatives, Georgia can promote recovery, reduce recidivism rates and improve overall public safety.
However, legislation alone will never be enough. Transformation will also take collaboration and education.
Addressing mental health in the criminal justice system requires collaboration among various stakeholders. Georgia must prioritize partnerships between law enforcement, mental health professionals, community organizations and policymakers. These collaborations can foster comprehensive approaches that integrate mental health services, diversion programs and post-release support systems. By working together, these stakeholders can ensure that individuals with mental illnesses receive the care they need at every stage of their interaction with the criminal justice system.
The state must also make significant investments in education and training for law enforcement officers, correctional staff and judicial personnel. This training should include recognizing signs of mental illness, understanding trauma-informed care and utilizing de-escalation techniques. Equipping these professionals with the necessary knowledge and skills would promote a more compassionate and informed approach. As a result, our state could reduce the likelihood of negative interactions and ensure the well-being of individuals with mental illnesses.
While we amplify collaboration and training opportunities, I want to urge my fellow legislators to pass House bills 232 and 233 to address mental health within the criminal justice system on a legislative level. The passage of the two bills would represent a crucial step toward a more compassionate and effective approach to justice. Transforming the criminal justice system starts with prioritizing transparency, promoting mental health treatment alternatives to imprisonment, fostering collaboration and investing in education and training.
It is essential to recognize that individuals with mental illnesses need support, understanding and access to appropriate care rather than being subjected to punitive measures. By embracing this comprehensive approach, Georgia can continue to pave the way for a justice system that truly serves its purpose of rehabilitation, reducing recidivism and ensuring the well-being of all its residents.
Representative Sandra Scott represents the citizens of District 76, which includes portions of Clayton County. She was elected to the House of Representatives in 2010 and currently serves as the Minority Caucus Chief Deputy Whip. She also serves on the Banks & Banking, Defense & Veterans Affairs, Human Relations & Aging, Insurance and Reapportionment and Redistricting committees.