Virginia Slowly Moving Forward With Diversion Programs For Individuals With Mental Illnesses.

(1-8-18) Kudos to Alexandria Virginia Commonwealth Attorney Bryan Porter for assigning a senior supervisory prosecutor to screen cases for persons whose arrest stemmed from some obvious mental illness and not criminogenicity.

Prosecutor Porter has put Molly Sullivan, a chief deputy prosecutor, in charge of reviewing arrestees for possible participation in a diversion program that will offer them treatment instead of languishing in jail. The goal is to address the underlying cause of crimes committed by people with severe mental illness, decrease the length of any incarceration, and to avoid it entirely in those cases where the safety of the community can be served by pre-trial services and mental health treatment and/or probation, according to reporter Denise Dunbar, writing in the Alexandria Times.

“As a society, we simply must do a better job in addressing mental illness. Far too often, police, the sheriff and prosecutors are asked to be the primary treatment providers for the mentally ill, and it should be obvious that we have neither the expertise nor the resources to adequately address the myriad of issues raised by mentally ill citizens,” Porter told the newspaper.


However, more than thirteen years ago when I was doing research for my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, the prosecutor’s office in Miami Dade Florida had one of its chief prosecutors doing exactly what Sullivan has been assigned.

Yes, that was more than a decade ago!

Virginia residents should be asking if their jurisdiction has a Molly Sullivan. (The state’s constitution requires that every county and every city be served by a commonwealth’s attorney.)

The diversion step that Commonwealth Attorney Porter is taking is part of a sequential intercept model concept designed to identify those who are being incarcerated primarily because of their illnesses – typically on charges such as trespassing and loitering – and divert them into treatment.

Such programs have proven to save tax dollars and help persons recover who are sick.

Porter’s actions are another step in several that are happening across the state, primarily because of the efforts of state Senator Creigh Deeds (D.) and Delegate Rob Bell (R.), Sadly, our state remains behind others.

One glaring example of footdragging is the state’s refusal to launch mental health courts as part of diversion efforts. In Virginia, you can’t even utter that term. You have to refer to them as mental health “dockets” or “behavioral dockets” because state legislators and many prosecutors are afraid they will be accused of giving special treatment to defendants.

In anticipation of his swearing in, Governor-elect Ralph Northam created an advisory group to recommend how the state can improve its mental health services under his leadership. I served on that panel and one of our recommendations is to better utilize what we politically correctly call “behavioral health dockets.”

Another committee that I serve on in the state, called the Criminal Justice Diversion Expert Panel created by the legislature, also has recommended Virginia begin implementing steps in the sequential intercept model that include court participation. Unfortunately, there are still localities in my home state that do not have even the first steps needed for jail diversion. Not all jurisdictions have Crisis Intervention Team trained police officers or standardized mental health screening in jails for individuals who are arrested.

On the national level, the Indepartmental Serious Mental Illness and Serious Emotional Disturbance Committee that I serve on, which was appointed by Congress to recommend improvements to our federal system, recently issued two specific recommendations that strongly support diversion efforts, including:

Develop and sustain therapeutic justice dockets in federal, state, and local courts for any person with SMI or SED who becomes involved in the justice system.

Require universal screening for mental illnesses, substance use disorders, and other behavioral health needs of every person booked into jail.

SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, also recommends jail diversion models that include mental health courts. It lists only four such courts in Virginia on its website, although that number is off. The last time when I checked, there were six to ten, depending on how you define a mental health court (docket.)

Virginia remains embarrassingly behind when it comes to implementing diversion programs. This is not because of a lack of knowledge. Arlington County has created a mental health care system that is recognized as a model for the nation. We are behind because of unjustified worries and timid leadership.

We can do better in Virginia and those of us with mental illnesses or a loved one with a mental illness need to support the efforts of forward thinking prosecutors, such as Commonwealth Attorney Porter, and demand that our state legislators support them too.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.