Increasingly, jails have become asylums. City and county officials are hoping to change that with a new court docket aimed at diverting people with mental illness from jail by the end of the year.
The therapeutic docket follows 18 months of data gathering by the local Evidence-Based Decision-Making Policy Team, which found that 23.1 percent of inmates—495 people—at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail met the criteria for serious mental illness.
“It gave us confidence that we had the numbers for a mental health docket,” says Pat Smith, the executive director of Offender Aid and Restoration, which handles local probation and re-entry services. “We still don’t know how quickly our docket will populate. We don’t even know that we’ll be approved yet.”
Earlier this year, General District Court Judge Robert Downer applied to the Virginia Supreme Court to form the new docket. Smith says they expect to hear back as soon as November, and could get underway by December. Separately, a $64,504 state grant has funded a docket coordinator position through June, speeding its implementation if it is approved.
Mental health dockets are becoming increasingly popular throughout the country as a type of problem-solving court, similar to the drug court that began in Charlottesville two decades ago. The docket is voluntary and offers people who qualify a chance at reducing or dismissing their misdemeanor criminal charges upon completion of a lengthy regimented treatment program, which lasts anywhere from six to 24 months.
Nearby, the Staunton and Augusta County mental health docket launched three years ago, and has graduated 14 people, with about a dozen others currently enrolled, says Dave Pastors, the director of Blue Ridge Court Services. Graduates have gone back to college, started businesses and reconnected with estranged family, re-establishing their support networks, says Pastors.
Representatives from the commonwealth’s attorney, the public defender, Region Ten and OAR would all help Judge Downer oversee a Charlottesville-area docket—with the commonwealth’s attorney having ultimate veto power over anybody being considered for entry into the program. Officials say that often a mental illness is directly linked to a person’s crime—trespassing, destruction of property, petty larceny.
Martin Kumer, the superintendent of the ACRJ, says the docket is a win-win. “In Virginia, the largest mental health provider in any community is the jail,” says Kumer. “I would much rather have my staff dealing with people who are here for criminal activity, rather than mentally ill people who are here for criminal activity. It’s expensive, and we are not equipped to deal with them.”
Neal Goodloe, the criminal justice planner for the Thomas Jefferson Community Criminal Justice Board, oversaw the collection of the data at the ACRJ and says a docket may help cut down on local recidivism rates too. According to the study, a small number of people—5.6 percent—were incarcerated four or more times. But that group made up 21 percent of the jail’s total bookings, and 33 percent of that group—a higher percentage than the overall population—showed signs of serious mental illness.
Goodloe says the numbers did not reveal any racial disproportionalities among people with serious mental illness, but that untreated mental health issues were more common among women than men. The study did not analyze data based on income level or age.