Shortage of forensic psychologists in Georgia is squeezing jails, hospitals

Georgia is operating with a 30 percent vacancy rate for forensic psychologists.
Published: May. 22, 2023 at 6:46 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Georgia needs more forensic psychologists.

The state also needs nurses, case workers, and other mental health workers. But state officials are stressing the shortage of forensic psychologists is impacting jails and hospitals across the state.

“We’re in a state of emergency when it comes to workforce,” said Kevin Tanner, the Georgia Commissioner of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

“When one part is not functioning correctly, it clogs the entire system up and that’s what we have here. And it really goes back to the workforce challenge. Until we’re able to solve the workforce piece the system is not going to be able to heal itself,” Tanner said Monday in an interview with Atlanta News First.

Tanner said Georgia is operating with a 30 percent vacancy rate of forensic psychologists.

Forensic psychologists are specialists who, among other things, conduct competency examinations of individuals recently arrested.

The exams are called up by a judge, defense, or prosecuting attorney if an individual’s competency is in question to a level where they would not be able to participate in defending themselves in court.

Tanner said along with the alarming vacancy rate, the number of competency orders requested is surging.

Judges have requested 40 percent more competency examinations since 2006, according to Tanner.

Tanner said there’s a 10-month waiting period for those in line for a competency examination.

An inmate waits for this examination either inside a jail or in the community, if a judge has granted bond.

“It’s the first thing I think about and the last thing I think about when I go to bed is how do I improve this system. We all know that needs to be sped up,” said Tanner.

Roughly 1,200 Georgians are on that waiting list.

Tanner said 450 individuals, who have been ruled incompetent for trial by a forensic psychologist, are awaiting medical assistance, but cannot check in to a hospital due to a bed shortage in state hospitals.

Tanner said they are set to start a pilot program in Cobb County jails focused on getting inmates help within a jail setting rather than waiting for beds to open up in a state hospital.

Tanner said clinicians will come to the jail, work with inmates in a separate part of the jail, and help restore competency ahead of a court date.

Tanner said they intend to operate this pilot program in Gwinnett County next.

He said pay is a primary reason for the shortage across the mental health field.

“Pay is part of it. But it’s more than that. It’s retention, it’s recruitment. It’s about increasing the flow of the pipeline coming into the system,” Tanner added.

Tanners said the state is conducting a mental health workforce assessment, set to be published in the coming months.