After receiving five invoices from the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Disabilities (DBHDD) for the treatment of mentally ill inmates housed at the Baldwin County jail, Sheriff Bill Massee felt it was time for someone to speak up.
"Your county jails and state prisons have become the new mental health facilities," Massee expressed in a detailed post Monday on the sheriff's office Facebook page.
Massee said the purpose of his post was to reach out to law enforcement supporters and hopefully word would reach DBHDD Commissioner Frank Berry so the issue could be properly addressed.
"The cost of jail operations for a county has been greatly affected by mental health issues for the past 10 years, and I feel it is my responsibility as both a sheriff and a member of the Georgia Sheriff's Association to educate the public and hopefully spread the word that something needs to be done," he said.
The hours law enforcement spends in arrest time, transport, investigations, court time, housing and food, medical treatment and other law enforcement functions is astronomical, he added. He said he was truly amazed that on top of that, the state was asking for additional money for the treatment of mentally ill inmates in a state facility.
The first bill was sent to the sheriff's office on June 13. The most recent invoice, dated June 25, was for $39,256.15. The bill was from East Central Regional Hospital in Augusta.
According to Massee, this was the first time the sheriff's office has ever received a bill from East Central or any other mental health facility.
"It has become very clear to me that as the legislature and state agencies reduce their budgets they do so providing less services and by pushing the cost and the responsibility down to county government," the sheriff said.
On average, 23 percent of inmates have a mental health issue.
Medical and transport costs can add up quickly, said Massee, especially since the nearest mental health facility, Central State Hospital, has been closed down.
"It has been known by law enforcement for years that it is increasingly harder to get people admitted than ever before. We have more mentally ill people, fewer bed spaces and the door is harder to open for treatment," Massee said.
In the 26 years that Massee has been sheriff, he has seen state jail bed totals skyrocket due to cutbacks on state correctional facilities. In 2012, state jail bed totals increased from 9,000 to nearly 45,000, he said.
In response to past discussions along with feedback from Massee's Facebook post, Berry contacted the sheriff's office. After speaking with Massee, Berry sent an email with an official letter from the DBHDD assuring that the Baldwin County Sheriff's Office would not be charged for services rendered.
"It states that we should disregard the invoices that we received and that we do not owe any of the amount as previously stated," Massee said.
The total amount from all invoices combined equaled $43,107.54.
In addition, Berry also contacted the Georgia Sheriff's Association and reiterated that county law enforcement agencies in any county in the state shall not be billed for mandated services they provide and for all sheriffs to be notified.
"I don't know for certain whether the Facebook post had something to do with it or not," said Massee. "The most important thing is that the law enforcement supporters and taxpayers were made aware of it."
He added that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of and that their main goal is to get inmates the help they need.