Almost quarter of regional jail inmates may have serious mental illness, study shows
Therapeutic court program kicks off in city, county
Nearly a quarter of inmates at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail may have a serious mental illness, according to a recent study by a joint city-county policy team.
“What this data suggests is that there are individuals who are cycling in and out of the jail, with their mental illness being at least a part of their churning pattern,” Neil Goodloe, a member of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Evidence-Based Decision Making Policy Team, recently told the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors.
The local EBDM team was founded in 2010 as part of a federal initiative to bring more data-driven policy to the criminal justice system. The EBDM team partnered with the University of Virginia’s Department of Systems and Information Engineering to design the study.
Data collected between July 2015 and December 2016 on more than 2,000 local inmates found that 23.1 percent who went through a mental health screening were determined to need further evaluation for serious mental illness. The team also found that 5.6 percent of inmates at ACRJ were brought to the jail four or more times during that 18-month window.
County Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said that she was overwhelmed by the volume of data in the study. “You really anchor what you say. It’s real.”
The study also found that while women make up 19.9 percent of the jail population, they constituted 28.4 percent of those flagged for potential mental illness.
The main problem the researchers identified was that most mentally ill inmates did not receive treatment after they left the jail. Only 23 percent of those flagged in the study received mental health treatment through the Region Ten Community Services Board, a mental health, substance abuse and intellectual disability services provider.
Education activists say that, due to inadequate mental health care, this cycle starts young.
“What we see routinely at JustChildren are students who are suffering a variety of mental health needs suffering removals from school, contact with law enforcement and inadequate special-education plans,” said Mario Salas, an attorney at the Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center. Salas works with the JustChildren program, the center’s advocacy group for children passing through the legal system.
“That’s the vicious cycle right there, and it just gets worse for many of these students,” Salas added.
According to the Legal Aid Justice Center’s 2017 report, dubbed Suspended Progress, students with disabilities were suspended 2.6 times more often than their peers in Virginia in the 2015-16 academic year. The suspension rate for African-American male students with disabilities was 20 times higher than that of white female students without disabilities.
The EBDM study does not prove that more mental health care will decrease the numbers of people returning to jail, but the team aims to find out.
“We know enough to already make some changes in our system,” Goodloe said. “A year ago, we began planning a therapeutic docket for the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County [general] district courts. It went live on January 23, and we have eight individuals who have been referred already.”
The new therapeutic docket, an alternative set of court procedures tailored to those with mental illness, was waiting for Virginia Supreme Court approval in the fall. Now that the docket has been approved, Goodloe expects the program to accommodate 40 to 60 mentally ill individuals a year.
“They are presented with a treatment plan and a deal, very similar to the way a drug court operates,” Goodloe said.
The treatment plan involves linking the individuals to mental health services, case management and judge supervision. Mallek asked whether those referred to the docket would stay in the community.
“Correct, although we do recognize that housing is a big concern for this population,” Goodloe responded. “Many of them do not have stable housing, or their housing is a couch or a basement.”
Ideally, Salas says, schools, courts and law enforcement would create a similar referral network for children to connect them to mental health care.
“Hopefully, with this information, the Board of Supervisors will turn its lens to looking at what happens before age 18, where can they intervene to make sure that students don’t enter the school-to-prison pipeline,” Salas said. “There’s a great need for more funding, more expertise, and prioritizing mental health wellness in schools.”
Currently, the local therapeutic docket has funding from a Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services grant until June, but the docket needs $110,000 per year after that. The funding could come from the city, county or associated nonprofits.
“Obviously, the human dimension is the most important, but in terms of the financial calculations, are there savings that would offset the investment in the court?” Supervisor Norman Dill asked.
“I’ve been in this business for 36 years and I haven’t seen any savings yet. I do believe in cost avoidance,” Goodloe said. He said that the docket could save the jail $91 per person per day, but only if it diverts enough people to close part of the jail.
“The other way we look at cost avoidance is we do not want to have to build any more jails,” he said, reminding the board of the recent expansion of the Central Virginia Regional Jail in Orange. The 2016 addition to the jail cost $16 million.