As my recent flight began its descent into Dulles International Airport, I felt a sense of frustration, embarrassment and irritation. The cause is a lack of leadership in my home county by the Fairfax County Bar Association, Commonwealth’s Attorney, and our local judiciary. Those of us with loved ones who have severe mental disorders deserve better.
First, some background.
I was returning from Utah where I had been invited to give the opening keynote at the 1st Annual Intermountain Mental Health Court Conference being held at Utah State University. Before the conference, I’d appeared on the local NPR affiliate in Logan with Judge Kevin F. Allen, a District Court Judge who oversees a mental health court in Utah. A political conservative, Allen told listeners that he had been wary of mental health courts until he saw first-hand how they can help break the jail-streets-jail cycle that many persons with mental disorders get caught in and — also how the courts actually save tax dollars.
The premise behind a mental health court is simple. Persons, such as my son, who become psychotic and end-up being arrested, are given a choice. They can go through the regular criminal justice system or they can opt to appear before a judge who has been trained to deal with mental health issues. Rather than focusing on punishment, mental health courts help persons with mental disorders get into community based treatment programs instead of lanquishing untreated in a jail or prison. In many cases, once a defendant successfully ‘graduates’ from the mental health court program, the criminal charges filed against him are dismissed and he is able to go on with his life without the burden of having a criminal record.
Judge Allen told radio listeners that he is in the process of documenting how much money Utah taxpayers were saving because of mental health courts. I suggested he contact my friend, Gilbert Gonzales, in Bexar County, Texas, where the progressive city of San Antonio is located. County officials there became alarmed when they discovered that 75 percent of public funds were being spent on law enforcement, detention and financing criminal justice matters. A study showed 16 percent of the jail population had severe mental disorders and 60 to 70 percent had been jailed for non-violent offenses. Despite this, these inmates remained in jail three times longer than others because there was no place for them to go. The jail had become the county’s mental facility. Each arrest was costing an average of $2,295.
Rather than sit on their duffs and complain, the county created what is being hailed as a model jail diversion program. The first step was Crisis Intervention Training for police and sheriff’s deputies. This course taught them how to defuse incidents when an officer encountered a person who was clearly mentally ill. Next, the county created a crisis drop off center where CIT officers could take an ill person rather than dumping them in jail or in emergency rooms. The next step was creating a mental health court where an ill person could be directed into treatment services.
Bexar County has diverted more than 1,700 persons with mental disorders, saving the county an estimated to be $3.8 million to $5 million.
It’s figures such as these that convinced Judge Allen in Utah that mental health courts were not only a good way to help persons who were sick but also were effective at saving tax dollars. The courts were a win-win all around.
I have heard similar testimonials from other communities in Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states I have visited.
While Fairfax County mental health officials have a jail diversion program, no one has stepped forward from the local bar association, prosecutor’s office or the Fairfax judicial to push for a mental health court. This foot-dragging is wasting tax dollars, causing unnecessary suffering and undercutting jail diversion efforts. About two years ago, I wrote a letter to Fairfax Chief Judge Dennis J. Smith about the need for a mental health court in Fairfax and asked if he would meet with me to discuss it. He refused. Even after I contact the late LeRoy Roundtree Hassell, Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, and asked him to intervene on my behalf, Smith showed no interest.
The Fairfax County Bar Association has more than 2,000 members, making it one of the largest in the state, yet none of its leaders has stepped forward either, nor has anyone from Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh’s office.
Thankfully, leaders in other Virginia communities have shown initiative and risen to the challenge.
Virginia currently has three mental health courts. They are in Norfolk, Petersburg, and Richmond. State Senator John S. Edwards has tried for several years to get a bill passed that would allow the creation of more mental health courts, but has been blocked in the House of Delegates.
Victoria Cochran, JD., is in charge of Virginia’s efforts to modernize its criminal justice/behavioral health system by developing CIT, pre-booking intervention, improved access to services, post-booking program, re-entry programs, and the development of mental health courts and veterans courts. Here is one link that describes her work. She also wrote an article published in the spring in the Institute of Law Psychiatry and Public Policy.
Her article shows that Virginia’s lack of progress is not due to ignorance. Cochran and the folks who run the jail diversion program in Fairfax are experienced and well schooled. They understand the value of a mental health court. It’s embarrassing that communities such as Logan, Utah, and San Antonio, Texas, are so far ahead of one of the wealthiest and highest education counties in the nation. And it is tragic that our loved ones are suffering because of it.