Georgia penitentiaries continue to feed, clothe and pay medical expenses for hundreds of inmates who were approved for parole but cannot be released because they have nowhere to live. About two-thirds are convicted sex offenders. About one-third require mental illness treatment but otherwise they are not considered a threat to public safety.
“We have got to do something about the housing situation, about the need for these individuals to have stable housing in order to be able to assimilate back into communities,” state Rep. Jay Neal said during a hearing that he chaired this week. Testimony was heard from officials at state pardons and parole and community affairs, the Clayton County sheriff’s office and Support Housing Atlanta.
Having nowhere to go means inmates approved for parole have no family able or willing to take them, and no publicly supported housing facility willing to accept them. One of the challenges associated with Georgia corrections reform is, where will released inmates go when they leave prisons?
The 2011 state special council on criminal justice reform delivered its report before Thanksgiving. The emphasis was on establishing alternatives to incarceration to reduce budget devouring prison system costs. The new Legislature has been in town nearly a month. The committee that will turn the special council recommendations into a bill is currently drafting the legislation.
Governor Nathan Deal’s criminal justice reform cards are on the table: $35.2 million for additional prison beds, $10 million for accountability courts expansion, $5.7 million to convert three pre-release centers to residential substance abuse treatment centers and $1.4 million to fund additional parole officers. Those priorities were named in his State of the State address and also in his proposed FY 2013 budget.
Moving away from a strategy that emphasized incarceration to one focused on alternative treatment for non-violent persons who do not pose any public safety threat means the state criminal justice system must change the tools it needs. Beds would be reserved for bad guys. Other people who need treatment more than incarceration would be placed into community settings.
This week a House committee met for 90 minutes to discuss the lack of available housing statewide for paroled inmates. State parole director Michael Nail told the committee Georgia currently has 367 former sex offenders and 147 people with treatable mental illness needs who are still locked up even though they served all required time and were approved for release from the prison system.
How long might they stay locked up? Most inmates are freed within 30-to-45 days after the parole board grants release. That is not the case for hard-to-release inmates. Nail said, “We’ve had inmates (who) have been there two years beyond their parole date simply because they have nowhere to go.”
Patients who require mental health treatment are a special challenge. The systemic approach to help them is a larger question than the impact it has on criminal justice reform. Georgia and the federal government entered into an October, 2010 consent decree that requires the state to transfer mental illness patients out of hospitals and into community settings. The state must be able to serve 9,000 persons on a strict timetable that concludes not later than July 1, 2015.
Paul Bolster is director of Support Housing Atlanta. Support Housing conducted a survey of mental health patients being held in several metropolitan area county jails. Bolster said inmates were asked where they would live if they were released. Twenty percent said they would be immediately homeless and 12 percent more said they did not know.
“Thirty-five hundred people with serious mental illness will be discharged from metro jails within a year’s time to, probably, homelessness,” Bolster told the House committee. “This explains why you have recidivism.” The survey was conducted in Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb county jails, and statistics were incorporated from Fulton County.
Clayton is Georgia’s third smallest county by land mass, but it has the state’s fifth largest population. Last year the county processed 26,000 prisoners. Those inmates consume between $7-to-$8 million annually in medicine and other health care expenses. About 900 of the jail’s 1,700 capacity prisoners require mental health services and between 300 to 400 require intensive mental health treatment. Sheriff Kem Kimbrough said those services could be provided at less expense outside a jail setting.
Kimbrough’s varied assignments have included work on the implementation of mental health community service boards and he holds an Emory University law degree. “We’re spending god awful amounts of money to keep them behind bars when the reality is we could probably spend less to support them in treatment, support them in housing, get them back out into the community and maybe even rehabilitate them into quality citizens,” said Kimbrough.
Governor Deal and the special council on criminal justice reform advocated expansion of accountability courts, including drug courts, that substitute strict monitoring and treatment programs for incarceration when the offender is not a public safety threat. The Clayton drug court program has 30 participants.
“We could have up to 300 folks that would meet drug court parameters but for one component, one very key factor, that they have stable residential housing outside the jail,” Kimbrough said. “That is the number one thing that gets them knocked out. If they don’t have a place to stay that is stable then they are not eligible for the drug court program.”
Pardons and parole, in partnership with corrections and community affairs, operates a program known by its acronym RPH – Residential Problem Housing. RPH residence slots – don’t call them homes, folks do not get their own home – are available to paroled offenders who have mental health treatment or substance abuse backgrounds, but slots are not available to convicted sex offenders.
RPH began to place former offenders in 2006. It uses primarily federal funds to pay $600 per month for room-and-board for three months to help paroled offenders return to the community. Almost 600 people have been placed in RPH housing at a total cost of $874,000. “That’s a lot of money but if this program did not exist and these inmates stayed incarcerated, it would have cost $5.3 million for that time frame,” parole director Nail said. Currently the state has 44 licensed RHP facilities.
Successful re-entry into the community reduces recidivism, the rate at which prisoners return to jail. Having somewhere to live is considered essential for transition to have a chance.
“We can get you clean, sober, on your meds and everything else, and then we send you back to the house where there is no order, all the people around you are engaged in drug activity, no one is checking on you to make sure are taking your meds,” said Clayton Sheriff Kimbrough. “All of those things are going to put that person right back into the mix. They are coming back to the county jail.”