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WVTF: Lawmakers Continue to Discuss Changes to Criminal Justice System, Including Mental Health Reform PDF Print E-mail

BY: Michael Pope

Created: March 5, 2018

Jails across Virginia are becoming de facto mental institutions as more and more inmates arrive every day with serious mental illness. And, lawmakers are hoping better treatment in jail might free up psychiatric beds for those not caught up in the criminal justice system.

What happens when an inmate with mental illness refuses to take medication? Should the inmate be taken to a mental hospital? Or should drugs be administered right there at the jail? Democratic Delegate Patrick Hope of Arlington says jails should be able to take care of those inmates without moving them to an institution.

“The goal is to free up psychiatric beds, in-patient psychiatric beds. We have a shortage of beds throughout the state, and so if it’s appropriate and if it’s available to be treated in jail then let’s do that.”

But that’s not the only thing the bill does. When it arrived in the Senate, Republican Senator Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico amended the bill to create a set of guidelines for correctional facilities.

“The idea is that we just need to standardize what the expectations are for the jails, and by having standards we can then measure if they are performing adequately and hopefully this will help us develop a better system whereby we can avoid some of the catastrophes we’ve seen in the jails over the last few years.”

Those standards were part of a larger mental health reform effort Dunnavant was not able to get through General Assembly. But the Senate tacked on those standards to Hope’s bill after it already made its way through the House, which means it’s on its way to a conference committee to hammer out differences between the two versions.