The situation has become an issue in several local races that will be decided in the Nov. 6 election.
Republican Eddie Lumsden, a former Floyd County commissioner, is challenging state House Rep. Barbara Massey Reece for the District 12 seat that covers western Floyd County and all of Chattooga County.
Lumsden noted that a consent order with the U.S. Justice Department forced the state to change the way it handles the mentally ill.
He said a new system of community-based programs and rapid response strategies have been put in place, but some patients will inevitably wind up incarcerated.
“We might like to go back to the old system we had, but that is not an option,” Lumsden said.
Reece, who was in office when former Gov. Sonny Perdue agreed to the settlement terms that Gov. Nathan Deal is now carrying out, said federal authorities initially demanded more community based services only for the developmentally disabled.
The inclusion of state clients with mental illnesses came as a surprise, she said, and there remain flaws in the plan.
“There were supposed to be services in place, but many of them are falling through the cracks,” Reece said.
Sheriff Tim Burkhalter, a Democrat, is facing a challenge from Republican Cary Cooper, a former Floyd County police officer. Both men said the jail is picking up the slack.
“We became Northwest Georgia Regional,” Burkhalter said, adding that, “It’s a tinderbox sometimes.”
Of the 750 or so inmates, about 17 percent are on psychotropic medication the county has to pay for and administer, he said, and 26 are “very mentally ill.”
Cooper said it’s a growing issue that sheriffs in every Georgia county are battling.
“You don’t get trained in jail school on how to deal with the mentally ill,” he said.
The Georgia Crisis Intervention Team, a National Alliance on Mental Illness program, is aimed at seeing that people with mental illnesses and other brain disorders get treatment instead of incarceration. The program includes a 40-hour course for law enforcement officers on how to recognize the behaviors and diffuse the situations.
Burkhalter said he’s worked with NAMI on the program — a Floyd County training session was conducted in March — but not every deputy can undergo training.
Cooper said the program is a partial solution to a new problem the statewide law enforcement community must address as a team.
“Funding is going to be difficult because there’s no control over (the demands),” he said. “We have to develop a strategic plan.”