BERKELEY COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - Berkeley County leaders are working towards creating a mental health court program to address what they say is a growing need.
It’s an effort to keep non-violent offenders, who are suffering from mental illnesses, out of the county’s already overcrowded jail.
So far, Berkeley County Council has approved funding for a coordinator who will run the drug court program and develop a mental health court.
“We need a mental health court in Berkeley County because what we see so often is people who are involved in the criminal justice system, mainly because they have a mental health issue,” said Solicitor Scarlett Wilson.
She’s already seen success with such a program in Charleston County.
“We’ve seen it work here in Charleston County for some time,” Wilson said. “We’ve been trying to get going in Berkeley County, so now we have this position that can help us develop mental health court and continue with drug court, we think we’re really going to be able to help with the population over there.”
The mental health court would target non-violent offenders.
Matt Dorman, the executive director of the Berkeley Community Mental Health Center, described a situation in which this program would apply.
“So, if you’re homeless, you don’t have any place to stay, you’re sleeping in a retail area or sleeping on the front porch of a business, you get charged with loitering or trespassing, you go to jail,” Dorman said. “The reality of it is, they have a serious persistent mental illness, have very few resources and affordable housing in the area, so what are they left with? They are often left with trying to figure it out on their own, and jail isn’t the place for them.”
Officials believe a mental health court could help with the overcrowded population of Berkeley County’s detention center. According to the detention center’s administration, the jail is averaging about 415 inmates this year, outpacing its state rated capacity of 291 inmates.
“The need is there, and we are going to need to meet the need,” Dorman said. “But I think the demand is so great. That will be our challenge, meeting the demand.”
Wilson said the funding for the coordinator position doesn’t kick in until September, and it will likely be spring before a strategy is developed for the mental health court that would allow officials to seek grants and other funding to pay for it.