A Fluvanna County man who faced a misdemeanor assault charge became the first graduate of a diversionary program set up by Albemarle County and Charlottesville general district court officials to assist people with mental health challenges and keep them from jail.
The district court’s therapeutic docket began accepting cases in February and celebrated its first success Tuesday afternoon with a quick reception attended by legislators, local officials and court officers.
“We need to put our money where it gets the biggest bang, and that is to help [participants] early in the process to help them receive the treatment they need and to keep the community safe,” said Charlottesville General District Court Judge Robert H. Downer Jr., in whose court the program is operated.
“When they graduate, they will be able to return to the community. Their mental illness will not go away, but we hope they will have the skills to cope with it and the medications and services they need,” he said.
The graduate’s name was withheld at the court’s request. Officials said that is in keeping with the program’s goal of helping to furnish a fresh start to those who complete it.
Program underway in Charlottesville, Albemarle
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State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, served as a keynote speaker, telling a Charlottesville General District Court courtroom filled with officials and program participants to remember that the brain is part of the body.
“We need to get to the point where we accept that, where we can get people the treatment and therapy they need,” Deeds said.
Deeds has pushed hard for mental health reform legislation since his son, who suffered from mental illness, attacked him in 2013. Deeds was injured in the assault and his son then committed suicide.
Deeds had attempted to find treatment for his son prior to the attack, but state mental health employees did not find the younger Deeds a bed prior to the expiration of a temporary detention order.
Deeds told the city courtroom audience that the alternative court docket, along with providing police and emergency crews with crisis intervention training, and improving access to mental health care, are needed to address mental health issues in Virginia.
“When you have the tools necessary to de-escalate a situation, to keep people out of jail and to provide them with the services they need, you have a path to a better outcome,” Deeds said. “It has occupied way too much of our time trying to get there.”
Joining Deeds at the graduation was Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, who has joined with Deeds on several bills addressing mental health care and services.
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Downer and others involved in the program said the special docket is not an easy out for those facing charges. It is limited to those whose mental illness played a major role in their arrests and only for misdemeanor offenses.
No one who has committed a felony or has a significant history of violent or sexual offenses is eligible.
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 idea for the program arose in 2015. That year, a screening process to identify inmates who fit the criteria for serious mental illness was developed for the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.
The screening is done by a health professional and is completed for every person being held at the jail within 24 to 48 hours of arrival. The same screening also is done at OAR for those on pretrial or probation supervision.
After 30 months of accumulating information on mental illness in those being taken to the jail, officials found nearly 33 percent of incoming inmates fit the bill.
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.
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Clinical psychologist Herb Stewart, who works with the program and the state’s mental health system, said tests and diagnostic systems help to determine who will likely benefit from the program.
“This is not being soft on crime,” he said. “It requires participants to make appointments, take medications, show up in court and receive the treatment that can make a big difference in their lives and in the safety of the community.”
The program has received support from defense and prosecuting attorneys alike.
“I am proud of the collective effort that made this therapeutic docket a reality,” said Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci said. “This docket promises to reduce incarceration costs and recidivism rates by providing low-level criminal offenders presenting with mental health needs the judicially supervised mental health treatment they need, rather than costly and sometimes unavailing incarceration they do not.”