According to a recent survey, over three times more people with mental illness are in jails and prisons than in hospitals. In one study, nearly half of all inmates had a mental illness, 30% a serious mental illness. And those with mental illness receive longer sentences, and spend more time incarcerated, and are more likely to spend time in solitary confinement.
A mental health docket is a way of diverting people with mental illnesses away from the criminal system, and into treatment. In Virginia, a mental health docket is an agreement between the local Commonwealth’s Attorney, the District (or Circuit, in the case of felony charges) Court judge, and the Department of Human Services, subject to approval by the Virginia Supreme Court. As of the end of 2018, there were 8 jurisdictions in Virginia with mental health dockets.
In the last several weeks, following years of discussion without action, a plan has emerged to create such a mental health docket for Arlington and the City of Falls Church, during the “lame duck” session before the new Commonwealth’s Attorney takes office. The current proposed plan applies to the district court, where only misdemeanor cases are heard. The application was due to be submitted July 1st to the Supreme Court, without any input from the public (or the incoming Commonwealth’s Attorney, for that matter); but at the request of local interested parties, the application has been pushed back and a public hearing has been scheduled.
Wednesday, July 17, 3-4pm
Arlington Courthouse, 10th floor jury room
Only the handful of people involved in drafting the application know the exact details of how the program would be structured, so it’s hard to know what to expect. But here are some questions one might have about the details of a mental health docket:
- Who is eligible to participate? Are there restrictions on participation based on demographics, the criminal charges, the type of mental illness, previous criminal record?
- Does the defendant avoid a criminal record by going through the program, or does he or she only avoid incarceration (like Arlington’s current drug court)?
- Does the defendant avoid immigration consequences by going through the program?
- Does the defendant have to plead guilty to the charges to be eligible for the program? (In some cases, this will force a potential participant to choose between maintaining their innocence and getting the help they need, and may reduce participation.)
- What kind of mental health treatment does the program entail, and how difficult or easy is it for the defendant to complete the program?
- Are there associated costs of the treatment, for example of medications, that the defendant needs to pay?
- What happens if the defendant fails to complete the program?