Later this year Charlottesville may add a new docket to its court system, specially geared towards people who may have mental health issues that factored into their running afoul of the law. WMRA’s Jordy Yager has this report.
Martin Kumer is a former Marine. He’s also the superintendent of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, which incarcerated around 4,000 people last year. It’s one of nearly two-dozen regional jails across the state. But Kumer says, there’s one thing jails can’t do.
MARTIN KUMER: We all agree, we are not psychologists and psychiatrists. Our staff, our correction officers, are not psychologists, psychiatrists. Our police officers…this is not what we do. We’re used to dealing with the criminal element, not mentally ill people who have committed crimes, and there is a distinct difference there.
And yet, the largest mental health service providers in nearly every community across Virginia are the local or regional jails.
Kumer is a part of a criminal justice group in Charlottesville and Albemarle that, for the last three years, has been studying the area’s entire system: probation, courts, police, jails. Specifically, they’ve been looking at all of these through the lens of mental illness, with the idea that maybe there’s another way to treat it.
Neal Goodloe is the criminal justice planner for the Thomas Jefferson Area Community Criminal Justice Board. He’s been looking at lots of data, and one thing has stuck out.
NEAL GOODLOE: In year two, we screened almost 2,000 individuals at the jail, and 495 of them met the minimum screening criteria for serious mental illness.
That’s nearly one in four people who could be suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression, as well as the more commonly overlooked post-traumatic stress disorder or acute anxiety. And they do get some treatment at the jails, but not enough, says Kumer, and usually, when they get released, that treatment drops off.
But Goodloe said the data also showed something more -- it linked mental illness with recidivism. They looked at people who had been jailed four or more times over the course of a year. And the data showed that a small portion of the population—about 5 percent of those incarcerated—take up about 30 percent of the jail’s resources. Or, as Goodloe said:
GOODLOE: They’re in, they’re out. They’re in, they’re out. They’re in, they’re out.
A lot of times, the mental illness of these folks may relate directly to their crimes, low-level misdemeanors such as trespassing, destruction of property, even petty larceny. And it adds up, said Kumer. First, there’s the interaction on the street with police officers, where people with mental health issues are more likely to resist an officer’s command or an attempt to detain them. They may not understand as clearly the consequences if they don’t. Officers have been taught how to de-escalate those situations, but each interaction is a long process. And that’s all before jail.
KUMER: And then he comes here, now my staff are dealing with him, so one individual, or that one instant, can occupy a lot of resources that now aren’t being spent on other things, so they’re pulling resources away from everybody else, and then they clog up the court system, and people there don’t really know what to do with them.
The criminal justice board recognized this. So they visited several mental health dockets that are still rare around the state, but becoming increasingly popular as they succeed in diverting people with mental illness from jail. It’s similar to drug court, which has been operating locally for about 20 years. If a person completes the extensive treatment program, they get their charges reduced or dismissed.
Last year WMRA visited the mental health docket for Staunton and Augusta County. It launched three years ago, and since then, 14 people have graduated from the program with about a dozen currently enrolled, said Dave Pastors, the director of Blue Ridge Court Services. Graduates have gone back to college, he said, started businesses, and perhaps most key, reconnected with estranged family, re-establishing their support networks.
Pat Smith is the executive director of Offender Aid and Restoration, which handles probation and re-entry services in the Charlottesville-Albemarle area. Smith says a local mental health docket could be launched as soon as December. She says it’ll give police an added layer to their Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT, which also helps divert mentally ill people from jails.
PAT SMITH: What we think is the referral process could come from any number of places: pre-trial, the magistrates, the prosecutors even, the defense, the police. They want to be educated as well, because they have the CIT training, so this will be one more notch. Their CIT people might say, ‘Oh I think this person will be a good candidate.’
Smith said Charlottesville General District Court Judge Robert Downer has applied to the Virginia Supreme Court, which is expected to make a decision on the docket by the end of November. In the meantime, the group recently got a $64,000 state grant to fund a coordinator position, which will act as a liaison between the public defender, the commonwealth’s attorney, the Region Ten community service board, and the judge.
That money will fund the docket through next June. This week, Smith and Goodloe are set to meet with the city to discuss future funding options. They’re quick to say that it’s not a cure-all, but dockets have been shown to drastically reduce recidivism rates, and so from that standpoint, it’s an investment.