Initially, the court will meet monthly to address cases awaiting mental health evaluations. Ultimately, the court seeks to rehabilitate qualifying mentally ill offenders who commit certain non-violent misdemeanors, rather than send them through the regular court system or to prison. Defendants will enter counseling or rehabilitation programs that could last from six months to a year or more. Community service may be involved, and the participant may be required to make restitution to any victims and pay fines.
Prince William County Bar Association President Amy Tobias spearheaded the effort to establish the court. It will be called the Diversion Docket and presided over by Chief Judge Steven S. Smith.
A mental health court is a type of diversion court, which typically emphasizes counseling, treatment and behavior modifications rather than punitive measures for special types of populations. Examples of other types of diversion courts include those for juveniles and military veterans.
Norfolk Circuit Court’s mental health court is the prototype in Virginia. A recent comprehensive study by Old Dominion University showed overwhelmingly positive outcomes: fewer repeat offenders, less jail time, improved mental health through treatment, and a jail costs savings of $1.63 million over 18 months.
Similar success has been seen in Petersburg’s court, established in March 2011. By 2013, only four out of 50 people (8%) in the program had re-offended, in sharp contrast to the 60-75% re-offense rate in the typical court program. Roanoke and Richmond are the other mental health or therapeutic courts in Virginia. Some other nearby jurisdictions, such as Fairfax, are working to implement diversion courts focused on other specialty populations, such as veterans.
National attention has been focused on the growing numbers and treatment of the mentally ill in large prisons. A recent undercover report in the New York Times exposed brutal mistreatment of 129 inmates with serious mental illness at the nation’s second largest prison, Riker’s Island Correction Facility in New York. About 40% of the prison’s 11,000 inmates are mentally unstable—a large increase from several years ago.