Many Virginia cities and counties began researching a decade ago to create programs to divert people with mental illnesses from incarceration. (Adobe Stock)
July 15, 2019
ARLINGTON, Va. — Arlington County will hold a meeting this week to get public input on a new program designed to offer those with mental illnesses treatment instead of jail time when they’re arrested.
The idea behind what’s known as “mental health court” is to waive incarceration if a person with a mental illness, convicted of a nonviolent misdemeanor, agrees to a treatment program supervised by a judge. The draft proposal has been criticized because it requires a guilty plea before a person can enter the program.
Arlington County’s Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood said that these people, for the most part, wouldn’t have had their brush with the law if they hadn’t been struggling with mental illness.
“These are people who aren’t as culpable as other people who are involved in the criminal justice system,” Haywood said. “And it serves no point to insist on that personal accountability angle when really it’s, you know, a mental illness that is to blame for a lot of the conduct.”
Haywood said the county’s Department of Human Services has been pushing for this kind of jail diversion program for the past five years.
The meeting will be held at 3 p.m. on Wednesday at the Arlington County Courthouse. Some advocates of the program are concerned that holding the meeting during work hours will limit public input.
The treatment program would be community-based and supervised by mental-health professionals and court workers. Haywood said the ultimate goal is to stop criminalizing behavior that is the result of a mental illness, and to give people options other than going to jail.
“A lot of the crimes that people, our future participants, are being arrested for are crimes that barely even have a victim,” he said. “So, things like trespassing, maybe even on public property. things like disorderly conduct. It’s things like interdiction, where somebody is being arrested simply because they’re in possession of alcohol.”
A recent study showed one in 10 people in Virginia prisons has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, and about one in five has some form of mental illness.
Those interested in commenting on the proposal can contact the Arlington County Department of Human Services.