Reporting from Atlanta — In a settlement that will serve as a model for enforcing the rights of the disabled, the Justice Department reached an agreement with Georgia to move many patients with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities out of the state's notoriously dangerous psychiatric hospitals and into the community.
The agreement, announced Tuesday, resolves a Justice Department lawsuit brought in January under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
It also caps a federal investigation that began after more than 100 suspicious deaths of patients in state mental hospitals were documented over a five-year period in a 2007 series in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The federal investigation confirmed an "alarming frequency" of preventable deaths, suicides and assaults in the hospitals.
As part of the agreement, Georgia will stop admitting people with developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome and autism, into its state hospitals by July 1, 2011. The state will move all developmentally disabled patients from state hospitals to "community settings" by July 1, 2015.
The state must also expand community-based services for about 9,000 mentally ill patients.
"This is a monumental step forward for people with mental illness," said C. Talley Wells, an attorney with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, one of a number of advocacy groups that worked with the Justice Department under friend-of-the-court status. "No longer will people be confined in a state hospital who could be living much fuller lives in the community."
Georgia officials were pleased to avoid direct federal control of the state's mental health services. In a statement, Gov. Sonny Perdue said the agreement "preserves Georgia's ability to make decisions on how best to serve Georgians."
Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said the settlement would serve as a template for nationwide enforcement of the principles laid out in a landmark Supreme Court disability rights case from 1999, Olmstead vs. L.C.
That case, Perez said, "was hailed as the Brown vs. Board of Education of the disability rights movement — a recognition that unnecessarily segregating people with disabilities in institutions can be just as destructive as segregating children in schools."
Ron Honberg, legal director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness — another group that intervened as a friend of the court — said state governments were in different stages of moving away from a reliance on big mental institutions, which, since about the mid-20th century, have increasingly fallen out of favor among advocates for the disabled. But "deinstitutionalization" also has critics, who say it leads to homelessness.