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Opinion/Editorial: Mental health, jails: Local study tells story

The Daily Progress - 2/18/2018

Up to a quarter of the inmates at our regional jail may need mental health treatment, according to a recent study. That's a sobering, startling number.

Here's another: For those who cycle in and out of jail most frequently, a third are in need of such assistance. In other words, the men and women who are jailed most often also are most likely to need mental health care. The frequency of arrests indicates the depth of their crises.

Specifically, 5.6 percent of inmates at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail accounted for 21 percent of bookings; and of that number, 33 percent were evaluated as needing mental health help.

"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 team researching these issues, recently reported to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors.

Mistreatment of the mentally ill in jails has snared front-page headlines in Virginia in recent years. Here at home, jail officials, mental health experts and others are trying to get a grasp on the problem in order to find solutions.

It's a huge crisis, statewide and nationwide, and any solution will have to be equally comprehensive. Locally, however, there is some good news mixed in with the sobering statistics.

Chief of these positives is the very fact that local officials are working hard to try to improve the system to better help some tragically needy residents.

The first step, of course, is identifying them to begin with. During the study period that produced the cited statistics, inmates went through a basic mental health screening.

In an expanded phase of the study, offenders were screened at any of several points, including not only the jail but also probation and Offender Aid and Restoration offices. A positive: Results showed little difference in the statistics, which still ranged around 21-25 percent. That reinforcing data suggests that the screening is equally effective regardless of where it's administered; or, put another way, that employees across the system are equally adept at identifying people in need of mental health services.

Similarly, another slice of the data showed virtually identical screening results across multiple jurisdictions (with a slight decrease for Orange County), and virtually equal results across urban, suburban and rural settings.

Of those who were screened for needing mental health help, 44 percent received services from Region Ten Community Services; 23 percent received specific mental health treatment. That number needs to be higher, but it's a good start.

Another positive: Diverting the mentally ill into treatment instead of letting a problem escalate until it becomes an arrest matter already has had notable success here. Ten years ago, the community implemented the Crisis Intervention Team system (which this newspaper supported), in which police are trained to recognize signs of mental illness, taught to de-escalate confrontations, and encouraged to send people directly to psychiatric evaluation instead of to jail. Fewer arrests of mentally ill people have occurred since then, the study notes.

In addition, the community has just launched a therapeutic docket program, a system of alternative sentencing that allows offenders to be ordered into mental health care instead of being sentenced to jail.

Statistics are important in quantifying success rates and failures. But this issue is about more than numbers. It's about individual men and women who are suffering; it's about their families and friends who suffer with them; it's about each of us, when our lives are disrupted or damaged by someone committing a crime while gripped in the torture or delusion of a mental illness.

And so it's an issue that we all should share in solving.


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