When viewed through the bars of a jail cell, mental health often takes a backseat in the criminal justice system.
But now, with the Albemarle-Charlottesville Therapeutic Docket officially up and running, local authorities hope to divert certain individuals with serious mental health issues who commit petty crimes from going to jail — a place with few treatment options.
The new docket isn’t for everyone, though. In fact, it’s pretty difficult to work through and takes serious effort on the part of the individual, according to Judge Robert H. Downer Jr., who will oversee the docket in Charlottesville General District Court. But with continuous oversight, consistent treatment and plenty of support, he and other criminal justice workers are confident the program will help those facing such challenges to smoothly transition back into the community.
“The hope is, with this intense help, at the end they’ll be able to lead a normal life,” Downer said.
The whole idea for a specialized docket to address mental health began forming a few years ago when Albie LaFave, the sentencing advocate in the local public defender’s office, watched as people with mental illness cycled in and out of the criminal justice system, with most ending up spending long, unproductive stints in the local jail. So, around 2015, LaFave started talking to other officials within the system to see what could be done.
“The biggest challenge is those people getting from jail back to the community and into services,” LaFave said. “I wanted to see that transition go more smoothly.”
A team started taking shape. Pretty soon, those involved with the project included Offender Aid and Restoration, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defender Office, the city and county commonwealth’s attorney’s offices, Region Ten Community Services Board and Partner for Mental Health.
It was important to the team that such a docket be supported by evidence-based data. Did the area actually need such a docket? Were there enough people who needed it? How did they know that some people were not getting the services they needed?
To answer those questions, Neal Goodloe, the criminal justice planner at OAR, worked with the local jail to implement in 2015 a screening process to identify inmates who fit the criteria for serious mental illness. 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 their arrival. The same screening also is done at OAR for those on pretrial or probation supervision.
Over the past three years, Goodloe also has been working with engineering students at the University of Virginia to help him capture long-term data. The group just reached the 30-month mark, with the goal being to understand the percentage of people filtering through the jail who fit the criteria for serious mental illness.
The results were telling, Goodloe said. Nearly one in three people at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail suffers from a serious mental illness, according to the data collected from the jail screenings.
By next year, Goodloe said the team should have 42 months of data and hopes to answer additional questions, such as if someone meets screening criteria; is on probation and in services; and does it improve that person’s outcome in the criminal justice system?
“Now we know more about our incarcerated population’s mental health and that it’s bigger than we thought,” Goodloe said. “When you know that, it creates a duty to act.”
“I am so encouraged to be in a community where we can get leadership and start having very honest discussions for how we better serve these populations,” he said.
The therapeutic docket is completely voluntary, but 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.
But there are conditions on eligibility, Downer said. The docket is meant for those for whom a serious mental illness played a significant part in the crime they committed. And it is only open to those charged with misdemeanor offenses. Defendants are not eligible if they committed a felony or have a significant history of violent or sexual offenses.
“We don’t want to keep people who don’t need to be in jail in jail,” Downer said. “We’ve found that when we do that, you tend to make the less risky people more risky and more likely to reoffend.”
“It’s a way to show kindness to our fellow members in the community and help them get on their feet,” said Liz Murtagh, the Charlottesville-Albemarle public defender. “But they are high-risk, which means they’re going to have problems and we’re not going to give up. It’s a process.”
Everyone involved must be on board for an individual to be accepted into the program. Prosecutors have the ability to deny someone entry and the victim in a case also has a say in the matter, Downer said.
And the person must plead guilty. After they complete the program and graduate from the docket, however, their charge will either be dismissed or they will receive a suspended sentence.
“I want to be careful to say that this is not to coddle a special population,” Downer said. “It’s going to be done on an individualized basis. But they will have to, at the very least, have acknowledged their guilt.”
“Accountability will be there the whole time,” he said. “It’s not a matter of some sort of ‘get out of jail free’ card.”
Every two weeks, participants will go in front of Downer to discuss their progress and make sure they’re on track with treatment. In between those court appearances, individuals will attend meetings with supervisors, go to counseling or other treatment sessions and consistently follow any medication plans. For most of these participants, they need help simply organizing their lives and following through on treatment plans.
“Most of the people that come through this system are not evil, bad, awful people,” said Downer. “They’re people that just can’t navigate like the rest of us. They don’t know how to keep appointments, they’re not really good at being on time for things — and those seem like simple, little things, but they’re huge barriers for people with mental illness.”
Consistency is the key, according to local clinical psychologist Herb Stewart. By helping these individuals maintain consistent counseling and treatment, the program gives participants a much better chance at getting well and staying out of the criminal justice system.
“This is not being soft on crime,” Stewart said. “If this were folks with Alzheimer’s disease, we wouldn’t stand for [sending them to jail]. I think it’s something that gets folks into the right system so it nudges them into the treatment they need to be safe and able to live in the community successfully.”
To help the docket clients get to court and all of their appointments, Partner for Mental Health volunteers provide transportation services. Anna Mendez, executive director, cited research that shows people with serious mental illness can live successfully in their communities when they have support.
“Getting access to those supports often requires navigating complex systems and, unfortunately, by their very nature, mental illnesses can prevent people from being able to do that on their own,” Mendez said in an email. “Partners for Mental Health systems navigators help clients navigate the mental health care system, human services system, criminal justice system and physical health care system to best get their needs met.”
The therapeutic docket quietly began on Feb. 27 with five clients. But before they could get started, the team needed to apply for and receive approval from the Supreme Court of Virginia. All specialized dockets need to be approved to ensure they are being held to the proper standards, according to Downer.
On March 23, the team got the official go-ahead. Chief Justice Donald Lemons was so impressed with the team’s work that he granted verbal approval almost a full month early. Downer said Lemons was impressed that both Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania and Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci were on board.
“I support the implementation of a post-plea therapeutic docket because I am hopeful that judicially supervised, mental health treatment for qualifying non-violent misdemeanants, whose criminal behavior is linked to an underlying mental illness, can reduce jail costs, calls for service, reduce recidivism rates and provide access to needed mental health treatment,” said Tracci, who reiterated the importance of public safety and the strict eligibility criteria.
“As a prosecutor, the dual goals of treating individuals charged with crimes fairly and keeping the community safe are paramount,” added Nina Antony, a Charlottesville assistant commonwealth’s attorney.
The docket will be funded by both the city and the county. In March, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors approved $55,000 for the docket, contingent on the city allocating the same amount. Last month, the Charlottesville City Council approved the same amount to allow the docket to go forward, according to Pat Smith, executive director of OAR.
“We are here to help people and give them an opportunity for success, and provide them the treatment that is necessary,” Smith said.
“We need to heal our community and we’re trying to care for people,” Murtagh said. “Not all communities have that attitude and we’re really fortunate here.”