Amid a crowd of family, friends and supporters, four people graduated from a diversionary program created by Albemarle County and Charlottesville general district court officials to assist people with mental health challenges.

The district court’s therapeutic docket began accepting cases in February 2018 and celebrated another successful set of graduations Tuesday afternoon with a quick reception attended by legislators, local officials and court officers.

Overseen by Judge Robert Downer, who will soon retire from the Charlottesville General District Court, congratulated the graduates, presenting each with a certificate, keychain and a stone bearing a word they chose.

“We are all very proud of you and the work you’ve done here,” Downer said. “Your mental illness will not go away, but you have the skills to cope with it and the medications and services you need.”

The graduates’ names are being withheld at the court’s request. Officials said that is in keeping with the program’s goal of helping to furnish a fresh start for those who complete it.

Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, served as the keynote speaker, congratulating the graduates and highlighting the importance of the therapeutic docket in setting an example for the rest of the state.

Bell has joined Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, in pushing for alternatives to jail for mentally ill people for several years now.

Deeds has pushed hard for mental health reform legislation since his son Gus, who suffered from mental illness, attacked him in 2013. Deeds was injured in the assault, and his son then committed suicide.

Bell has experienced mental illness within his family and said he seen the toll mental problems can take on someone. The docket is an alternative and a path forward, he said.

“Anyone who is skeptical about the toll of mental illness does not live with someone who is mentally ill,” Bell said. “This program is a signal to the rest of the state. The issues we see here we see everywhere else, as well.”

Though it creates a diversionary path, addition to the docket is not an easy way out for offenders, and several qualifications must be met.

The victim, Offender Aid and Restoration, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defender Office, the city and county commonwealth’s attorneys offices, Region Ten Community Services Board and Partner for Mental Health all review cases referred to the docket.

To be put in the program, all of the agencies must agree and prosecutors have the ability to deny entry.

In exchange for a guilty plea, the defendant either will have the charge dismissed or will receive a suspended sentence once the program is successfully completed.

The therapeutic docket is completely voluntary, but it begins with a referral from any number of sources: the jail, OAR, the police, a defense attorney, the commonwealth’s attorney or a mental health professional at Region Ten.

Docket calls are held twice a month and participants must go before the judge both days. As the offenders progress, the amount of time spent before Downer is reduced, he said.

Though Downer is retiring, there are plans to continue to docket under the supervision of his replacement judge.

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Tyler Hammel is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7268, or @TylerHammelVA on Twitter.

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