Virginia’s history of the implementation and maintenance of mental health courts (MHC), is as dismal as most other states. This isn’t to say that we should take comfort in our universal ineptness, but it should serve as a warning sign as to the abundance of hurdles, lack of oversight, and gap in funding for having truly effective mental health dockets.
Virginia currently has 32 general district courts which typically act as the primary entry point any person has with the judicial system due to it generally covering all traffic cases and other misdemeanor and civil cases involving amounts of under $25,000. Out of those 32 courts, only 2 have mental health dockets – the cities of Richmond and Petersburg. As for circuit courts, Virginia currently has 120 courts that handle civil cases over $25,000, felony charges, and serve as an appellate jurisdiction for any cases originated in the General District Courts. Virginia has only one, Norfolk, which utilizes a mental health docket.
Now let’s take a closer look at the history of Norfolk’s MHC. After over 2 years of trying to implement this specialized docket, it was officially established in 2008. Since that time, approximately 30 participants have been involved with the diversional program at any given time, and typically remain active for at least a year (obviously this number doesn’t even come close to addressing the disproportionate number of incarcerated individuals with serious mental illness, but its a start). With the Virginia Commission on Mental Health Law Reform increasing focus on MHCs, Norfolk’s program became the prototype for all others in the sate to follow. This also put it under a high level of scrutiny from legislators and people within the judicial system. Old Dominion University was commissioned to completed a comprehensive study and issued a report on the MHC’s measurable outcomes. Due to this and other studies being conducted across the nation, the Commission was forced to acknowledge the substantially higher rate of access to services, less time spent incarcerated, better collaboration of services, improved mental health and engagement in treatment, and lower recidivism rates that came with the effective use of MHCs. Most important to legislators was the significant savings in jail costs, with $1.63 million being saved during the ODU study period of 18 months in Norfolk’s jurisdiction! One could assume that for this reason alone, more courts would quickly be following in step with Norfolk’s MHC.
In 2005, both Richmond City and Petersburg City began to work towards the creation of a MHC through grants and subsidies from the federal government, yet it wasn’t until April/May 2011 that the dockets became active. Even after that long stretch of time to iron out the wrinkles, Richmond City’s docket was met with dissension from within its own judicial ranks. By November 2011, the Virginia Supreme Court issued a memo that stated the creation of any “problem-solving courts” was legislatively unauthorized. The memo sent by Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser to over 400 statewide judges, specifically warned that the creation of any specialized docket would need General Assembly approval before being implemented. This one memo created a level of fear in many judges across the state (even those who serve on other specialized dockets like “Drug-Courts”) to temporary suspend services until substantial research and collaboration with the General Assembly could be worked out (and we all know the speed at which the GA works!). Concurrently, Petersburg City was facing additional issues of their own. For example, they recognized that they were missing a critical factor: a position of a coordinator that could work with all of the necessary agencies since there was no precedent for inter-agency collaboration prior to the MHC creation. <Insert eyeroll> Luckily the Cameron Foundation provided funds for the position… for approximately 1 1/2 months! (Le sigh). It was after this rocky start that from a media standpoint, information on Richmond’s and Petersburg’s MHC dissolved into oblivion.
With no general information available on the interwebs, I was left cold-calling each General District Court for information. Both courts stated that their MH dockets are “active;” however, trying to get more specific information on its use, effectiveness, and evaluation proved almost impossible. After leaving numerous voice mail messages, I finally received a call back from Petersburg’s General District Court clerk’s office. Again, most of my specific questions were met with “Oh geez, I really don’t know,” but I was able to get some generic information. For instance, the process of a defendant’s inclusion on a mental health docket is a little different than in other jurisdictions. Petersburg police officers responding to a call can “fill out a form and report” to submit along with the other charge documents “if it appears that the defendant has a history of mental illness” (Leave it up to untrained and overworked police to fill out a form!?) From there, the paperwork is “routed” to the current Mental Health Docket Coordinator for review (The coordinator has evidently been in flux, because it took 4 attempts to find this person’s name and transfer me to their voice mail). A “through” case review is conducted and eligibility is determined based off of “prior police reports and additional information.” From there, District 19 conducts a mental health exam if one already hasn’t been completed to screen for Axis I diagnoses. (I’ll save my complete and utter disdain for District 19 and their unethical/ineffective services for a later post.)
I don’t think it takes a PhD in research to see the numerous shenanigans of Virginia’s Mental Health Courts. After a rocky start, contempt from naysayers, and general funding and logistical concerns, one can easily see where program access, effectiveness, and outcomes can be called into questions. Even with the totality of these chronic issues, it does not signify a need to scrape the whole idea of mental health courts – as research shows them to be overwhelmingly beneficial to consumers, the judicial system, communities, and tax payers. Instead I believe it shines a spotlight on the necessity to establish funding streams and subsidiaries to encourage the creation of specialized dockets, provide technical assistance to negotiate inter-agency collaboration and fast-track MHC creation, and have a regulatory body provide oversight and adherence to evidence-based practices that serve the consumer above all else.