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Out of Crisis
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Out of Crisis

New mental health initiative in Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.

“It might seem counterintuitive, but my job is to get a just result, not a conviction. We have a duty to all citizens, including people who offend.” — Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter

In a criminal case involving mental illness, a conviction isn’t always the same as justice.

A new initiative in Alexandria’s Commonwealth’s Attorney Office aims to address mental illness issues connected with criminal cases.

“Any case that comes under our office which one of the prosecutors thinks involves severe mental illness as the primary cause for the offense will let [Chief Deputy Attorney] Molly Sullivan know to let her investigate and determine if it fits into the initiative,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter. “Then Sullivan will adopt the case and steward it through the system as the case moves forward. The idea is to get to the root cause of criminal offenses. If that’s mental illness, then we need to take that into account and put resources into the issue to get the offender the necessary treatment and eliminate the core problem to stop recidivism for people who are mentally ill.”

A set of criteria has been established to determine whether a case is eligible for the Mental Health Initiative (MHI). The adult charged by the court must suffer from a severe mental illness and that illness must have substantially contributed to the charged crime. In determining which cases to accept, eligibility for MHI could also vary depending on whether it was a violent crime. The accused’s willingness to participate and the thoughts of the victim of the crime are both taken into consideration. The program also looks into the records for the accused, for past mental health treatment and past criminal records.

Those who participate in the MHI would be eligible for a range of dispositions. In some cases, issues that might have become a criminal justice issue are dropped, particularly for minor, non-violent offenses. In other cases, sentencing could be suspended with probation including compliance with mental health treatment. Some charges could be reduced to a lesser offense to limit the severity of the sentencing, or an agreed “not guilty by reason of insanity” plea.

Porter says law enforcement often becomes a last resort mental health treatment. Problems can escalate out of the limelight and away from mental health services until they boil over into legal trouble.

“In a lot of ways, unfortunately, we get left holding the bag,” said Porter. “There are people who are mentally ill and not a danger to themselves or others, but if they don’t seek out treatment we can’t force them to. It’s not until they commit an offense and police get involved … [that we] become the last resort provider of mental health treatment. We’re the ones stuck trying to figure out a way to get treatment to the offenders. It might seem counterintuitive, but my job is to get a just result, not a conviction. We have a duty to all citizens, including people who offend.”

Porter said the program won’t require any additional funding from the city at the start. The pool of candidates for the MHI is limited to six at the start as a pilot program, but Porter also said that’s about as many cases as he could additionally assign to one of his lead prosecutors without additional funding for staff from the city.

“Right now, the idea is to get these programs off the ground, see how they do,” said Porter. “If they are a success in a year or two and had an impact, then maybe [we will be] in a position during a budget process [to expand]. Without additional resources, I don’t know how much bigger I could make it. It’s a pilot, so the idea is to get it up there and get it running.”

Part of the program involves partnerships with other local organizations, from the local mental health community to other branches of law enforcement.

Staff from the Department of Community and Human Services began working closely with the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office over a decade ago, “when we came together to begin discussions about bridging the gap between the behavioral health system and the criminal justice system,” said Liz Wixson, director of Clinical and Emergency Services. “We recognized years ago that many persons with mental health and substance use disorders were falling through the cracks in our systems because, despite our best intentions, we simply weren't designed to stop this from happening.”

Wixson said MHI is a continuation of work started with the Criminal Justice/Behavioral Health collaborative, a subcommittee of Alexandria’s Community Criminal Justice Board. Wixson says the group came together to identify ways to collaboratively help those with behavioral health disorders live law abiding, healthy, productive lives.

“We've seen the cracks between our systems close and, more importantly, we've seen countless cases of people with behavioral health disorders receive the care and treatment services they need to help them live law-abiding and productive lives in our city,” said Wixson. “These efforts are truly a win/win for the criminal justice system, the behavioral health system, and for the individuals and families with whom we all work.”

Wixson said national studies have shown that jails and prisons across the country are full of people with mental health and substance abuse disorders.

“People with behavioral health disorders are over-represented in the criminal justice system,” said Wixson. “They often cycle in and out of mental health, substance abuse and criminal justice systems, are more costly to incarcerate than those without a behavioral health disorder, are more costly and time consuming for law enforcement officers, and can clog the court system. Often as a result of circumstances beyond their control, people with mental illness are more likely to be arrested; to be detained because they cannot post even very low bail; to be charged with more serious crimes; to have stiffer penalties imposed; to spend two to five times longer in jail; and are at increased risk of returning to jail on a probation violation, as compared to probationers without a mental illness.”

Wixson said there are measures law enforcement can take to keep those with mental health issues from winding up in jail. Wixson pointed to crisis intervention teams trained to handle someone dealing with a mental health crisis, assessment centers to provide behavioral assessments, and collaborative reentry programs all prevent incarceration and recidivism.

“Programs such as … the new sentencing alternative program in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office are designed to bridge the gap between all of these systems, break the recidivistic cycle often experienced by people with behavioral health disorders, and help these persons live law-abiding and healthy, productive lives,” said Wixson. “We are grateful for the thoughtful, problem-solving approach being used by the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office to get to the core issues of why many people come to the attention of the criminal justice system in the first place. By helping people get the mental health and substance abuse treatment services they need, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office is helping to not only improve public safety outcomes, but they are helping improve the lives of many people in our city.”

The program is expected to have participants by February 2018.