Officials and activists are asking the county courts to make a newly-proposed mental health jail diversion program more inclusive.
Arlington and Fairfax public defenders joined several advocates during a Thursday evening meeting about the proposal, and urged county officials to broaden the mental illnesses diagnoses accepted in the program and not require plea bargains as a participation requirement.
Brad Haywood, who leads the Office of the Public Defender for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church, shared a list of changes his office wants the county to make to the proposal before the county submits the application to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Juliet Hiznay, a special education attorney by training, joined him on Thursday to express concern that only some “serious mental illnesses” were considered shoe-ins for the program, which is called the Behavioral Health Docket.
Hiznay said she was worried that people with developmental disabilities (like ADD or autism) could also benefit from the court-supervised treatment plan, but would be considered “exceptions” under the current eligibility criteria.
Much of the evening focused on discussing whether the county should require participants to plead guilty to their charges before participating in the program (as is currently proposed) or allow them to follow the docket program and then have a trail (as Fairfax County does.)
“Because it requires a guilty plea it literally can’t decriminalize mental illness,” said panelist Lisa Dailey, who analyzes and advises mental illness decriminalization policies at the Treatment Advocacy Center. “So if that’s your goal you’re failing right out of the gate.”
When Arlington Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Lisa Tingle asked Fairfax Public Defender Dawn Butorac asks whether the Fairfax docket convicts participants of their charges if they fail out of the program, Butorac said Fairfax prosecutors set no such deals.
“Telling your client ‘if you fail this is what we’re going to do’ is sending the wrong message,” Butorac said.
Haywood pointed out that another benefit of nixing the pre-plea requirement was getting people into treatment fast — something not possible if the county’s tedious discovery process slows down the process.
Haywood also noted that requiring pleas to participate in the mental health service could lead innocent people to say they were guilty in order to access services. He acknowledged that was an “extreme” hypothetical but could be avoided if the county followed Fairfax County’s example of only contending with pleas after a participant finishes their docket treatment plan.
“We are much more inclusive than Arlington,” Butorac said of Fairfax’s docket, which was created after a mentally ill woman was tasered. “When we drafted it, we wanted it to be as inclusive as possible.”
(Updated at 5:15 p.m.) Courts in Arlington County will no longer legally declare people drunks and arrest them for drinking alcohol after a federal court ruled the old law unconstitutional.
A full panel of judges on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a state law called “interdiction” which allows counties to label people “habitual drunkards” and prosecute them for having or drinking alcohol. The judges ruled 8-7 last week that the law left the meaning of habitual drunkards “unconstitutionally vague” and constituted cruel and unusual punishment — a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
“We hope that this means that our clients can have the debilitating label ‘habitual drunkard’ lifted from them and they can move through their lives without constant fear of prosecution,” said Elaine Poon, the managing attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center which has helped lead a class-action fight in court to overturn the law for the last three years.
Prosecutors in Arlington this week dismissed seven active cases brought under the nullified law, and police have suspended enforcement — though laws against public drunkenness and other alcohol-related crimes remain on the books.
“In accordance with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruling, the Arlington County Police Department has suspended enforcement of the Virginia Code sections related to alcohol interdiction,” said ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage. “No arrests or charges will be sought in relation to those code sections.”
Brad Haywood, Arlington’s Chief Public Defender, said attorneys in his office were notified about the change Thursday morning when they showed up to court, and his office was “ecstatic” to hear the news last week.
“This has been an issue that defense attorneys and social workers have been fighting for decades,” he said. “Since the first day I’ve worked a public defender 15 years ago there were concerted efforts to overturn this law.”
The case, Manning v. Caldwell, is named after Roanoke man Bryan Manning. A judge declared Manning a “drunkard” nine years ago under the interdiction statute without Manning present because the man, who is homeless and had struggled with alcohol addiction for several years, can be difficult to find. Over the next eight years, Manning racked up over 30 charges related to possessing alcohol or being suspected of drinking it, and the frequent arrests often cost him jobs and led to him losing his possessions.
Manning isn’t the only one: in Arlington, one interdicted man has been charged 37 times, per data the prosecutor’s office shared with ARLnow.
The same data shows 12 people have been interdicted in Arlington since 2015, and in total there are 50 interdicted in the county — with each person averaging 19 prosecutions. Between 1996 and 2015, there were 1,220 people legally declared drunks across Virginia, reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Some officials and residents are asking for more time to review a jail diversion program for people with mental illnesses, saying the county developed it without enough public input.
About a hundred people gathered in the County Board’s meeting room Wednesday afternoon for a meeting called after activists requested a chance to weigh in on the new criminal justice program. Attendees expressed general support for the “Behavioral Health Docket” but worried about its requirement that participants plead guilty to participate, adding that the county needed to listen to more members of the public before finalizing the program.
“I think it’s important to keep in mind is that even if the application is a post-plea docket, which is what Judge [Fran] O’Brien would like to see happen, that there’s going to be evolution,” said Department of Human Services (DHS) Director Anita Friedman in an interview. “I think that even if we start post-plea we might add pre-plea later.”
“I think the important thing is not to let perfection be the enemy of good,” she said, noting that the county has revised its other diversion program, Drug Court, many times over the last few years.
The Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia must approve the county’s request to form the diversion program. DHS originally planned to apply for that approval last month before a group of activists and officials, including incoming prosecutor Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, said they hadn’t heard about it and had concerns.
After the meeting, officials did not confirm whether they would extend their plan to submit the application in September, or would schedule additional public meetings.
Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood was one of the officials who said he hadn’t heard about the application until very recently. On Wednesday, Haywood said he still supported for the docket but reiterated concerns about the post-plea condition.
“I really want to make sure that as many people as possible are getting into this program, and getting in as quickly as possible,” he said, adding that requiring pleas could “dramatically reduce” the number of participants and how fast they can join it.
The Behavioral Health Docket will accept participants who have pled guilty to a misdemeanor offense, or a felony reduced to a misdemeanor, and reside in Arlington, according to a program description obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. People with a history of felony convictions, sexual offenses, or have active warrants out for their arrest in other jurisdictions cannot participate, per a copy of the application ARLnow obtained after filing a FOIA request.
Participants would have to meet weekly in court as well as their probation officer, mental health clinician, per the application. Participants will also have to pass drug and alcohol screenings, take any medications prescribed, participate in activities like volunteer work or employment, and stay clear of any new arrests. Over time, participants will meet less frequently as they work towards a “graduation” where they’ll be supervised for another 90 days.
“That’s why it’s called a therapeutic docket,” said Judge O’Brien. “It’s designed to help people with mental illness and designed to help keep them on a path that keeps them out of the criminal justice system.”
She told the audience that it was imperative to move quickly because of the sheer number of people affected. Earlier that day, she said five people on her docket were clients of the county’s behavioral health services and where “chronic violators” of their parole. Recently, she said one defendant disappeared after appearing to get better and family members were concerned he was off his medications.
“All I wanted to do is try to find him before he got too far gone,” said O’Brien. “Because I didn’t have that power because he wasn’t on my docket, so I had to issue a warrant for his arrest.”
Arlington County is considering a new program to divert people with mental illnesses into treatment instead of jail.
The proposed program would waive incarceration for people with mental illnesses who are convicted of non-violent misdemeanors if they agree to an intensive treatment program supervised by a judge. All the officials who spoke to ARLnow about the program supported it, but some weren’t aware the county was working on the program and said they had little opportunity to add input.
The Arlington County’s Department of Human Services is spearheading the program. A spokesman told ARLnow on June 27 that in response to “recent requests” it would host a public meeting on the so-called Behavioral Health Docket on Wednesday, July 17 at 3 p.m. The location of the meeting has yet to be determined.
“The aim is to divert eligible defendants with diagnosed mental health disorders into judicially supervised, community-based treatment, designed and implemented by a team of court staff and mental health professionals,” said DHS Assistant Director Kurt Larrick.
This new docket aims to accept defendants 18 or older who reside in Arlington and who are diagnosed with a serious mental illness, Larrick said. Additionally, only defendants who have been charged with misdemeanors, not felonies, would be eligible for the diversion program. Defendants would need to agree to work with a team of mental health professionals and program staff to enroll in the docket and agree to follow a treatment plan with some supervision.
“These programs are distinguished by several unique elements: a problem-solving focus; a team approach to decision-making; integration of social services; judicial supervision of the treatment process; direct interaction between defendants and the judge; community outreach; and a proactive role for the judge,” Larrick said.
Where Mental Illness and the Law Collide
Officials and advocates say they hope that the docket will help break the cycle of recidivism that some people with mental illnesses fall into.
“Arlington has a significant number of people with mental illnesses that intersect with the criminal justice system,” Deputy Public Defender Amy K. Stitzel told ARLnow. “Evidence-based mental health dockets not only treat instead of criminalizing behavior that is a result of mental illness, they increase treatment engagement, improve quality of life, reduce recidivism and save money.”
“We’re talking about people who are arrested for vagrancy and loitering and trespassing,” said Naomi Verdugo, who has been an activist for people in Arlington with mental illness for several years. “These are largely misdemeanors and stupid things, and it’s because they aren’t well. We would be better off putting services around them than paying to incarcerate people who are just going to reoffend.”
“It is clear that the local and regional jails in Virginia have a substantial number of persons with mental illness in their care, and that this care is costly to the localities and to the Commonwealth,” says a 2017 study of similar programs statewide.
The most recent data from Virginia jail surveys indicate that statewide 1 in 10 of the inmates counted was diagnosed with a serious mental illness, such as PTSD or schizophrenia, and about 20% of all inmates had some kind of mental illness.
Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood said his office has been part of a team discussing mental health improvements for 15 years with the county’s Mental Health Criminal Justice Review Committee, and for the past five years with a subcommittee dedicated to creating a docket, called the Behavioral Health Docket Committee. Haywood strongly supports the idea of a Behavioral Health Docket but noted his office wasn’t notified the county had advanced plans for the docket until recently.
“This is not a transparent approach”
While he applauded DHS for moving the program forward, Haywood said he would have liked more input on the design when organizers decided to require defendants plead guilty before participating in the program.
“From our perspective, until early spring of 2019, the process for drafting and submitting an application for the Mental Health Docket seemed to be moving very slowly,” he said. “I don’t know what changed that took the process to where it is now, to having tight deadlines and short comment periods.”
Commonwealth’s Attorney candidate Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who recently won the Democratic primary against incumbent prosecutor Theo Stamos, said she heard about the docket for the first time two weeks ago. During her campaign, Tafti advocated for a mental health court as part of larger criminal justice reforms, but said she wasn’t given a chance to comment on the Behavioral Health Docket.
She told ARLnow that she has concerns the new program “criminalizes mental illness” by requiring a plea to participate.
Jail Holds Family Event for Inmates — “Some Arlington County children got a rare opportunity Tuesday night: a chance to visit with their fathers and mothers — who are in jail — without any barriers between them.” [WJLA]
Local Girl Scouts Help Seniors — “They came in need of help, smartphones in hand… Girl Scout Troop 60013 was on it. This week, the Arlington, Virginia-based scouts hosted ‘TechBridge,’ their first walk-in clinic to help local senior citizens learn how to use their cellphones.” [CNN]
County Fair Seeking Judges — “Organizers of the Arlington County Fair are seeking volunteers both to register and judge entries for the competitive-exhibit competition. Volunteers with expertise will serve as superintendents and judges in a host of categories, with judging taking place Thursday, Aug. 15 at 10 a.m. at Thomas Jefferson Community Center.” [InsideNova]
Campaign Ad Questioned — A TV ad placed by a political action committee on behalf of commonwealth’s attorney candidate Parisa Dehghani-Tafti is being questioned. The ad brings up recent anti-abortion laws in other states says incumbent Theo Stamos “would enforce anti-choice laws” in Virginia. The video cited in the ad shows Stamos saying she “takes an oath to uphold the law” but would not enforce an unconstitutional law. [Blue Virginia]
APS Adds Non-Binary Gender Option — “This school year, Arlington Public Schools added a new question on its form for students to indicate a designated gender, including male, female and ‘X.'” [DCist]
ACPD Has New Electronic Sign — “You may see a new electronic signboard around @ArlingtonVA thanks to JAG grant funds provided through the @TheJusticeDept! These signboards help ACPD share important public safety messaging around school zones, events and campaigns… The signboards also display motorists speed so remember to slow down and obey posted speed limits.” [Twitter]
Leak Prompts Early Morning Road Closure — “A water leak has been repaired after causing early morning traffic problems Wednesday in Arlington. The leak was reported along S. Arlington Ridge Road between 23rd St S. and the Interstate 395 Service road.” [Fox 5]
Jail Holds Holiday Party for Inmates’ Kids — “The Arlington County Detention Facility was transformed Tuesday night into the fictional town, Whoville, in anticipation of a few special visitors. Some children were given the opportunity to visit their incarcerated parents.” [WUSA 9]
Amazon News Roundup — Amazon is planning to bring a “Treasure Truck retail vehicle” to the D.C. area. One way to accommodate new HQ2 workers would be to upzone nearby residential neighborhoods like Aurora Highlands to the population density of Capital Hill or San Francisco’s Mission District. Prompted by Amazon’s arrival, George Mason University plans to build a new 400,000 square foot facility on its Virginia Square campus in Arlington to house the Institute for Digital Innovation, “a research enterprise for fields like data analytics, cybersecurity and defense.”
Flickr pool photo by Brian Allen
Arlington’s top prosecutor now says she’ll no longer seek cash bail for people accused of most low-level misdemeanors, in a bid to avoid jailing people simply because they can’t afford to pay their bond after they’re charged with a crime.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos, a Democrat, announced Thursday (Nov. 1) that her prosecutors will now only seek cash bonds in cases involving drug dealing or drunk driving. She added that her office will simply describe the facts of a defendant’s case and any prior criminal history, and leave it up to a judge to decide the circumstances of any pretrial release.
Stamos previously attracted some criticism on the issue of bail reform, after nine state lawmakers from around the area wrote to her in June to urge a wholesale overhaul of the county’s system. She dismissed that letter at the time as “misguided” and “silly,” arguing that the General Assembly needed to act to change state law before she could make substantial changes.
Stamos told ARLnow that she remains convinced that she “can’t reform bail statutes on my own,” and said this latest change was the result of her own research over the last two years or so, not any outside pressure.
“This is a much more complicated issue than simply saying, ‘Let’s do away with cash bail,'” Stamos said. “This has been a deliberative process, and I wanted to have a lot plans in place before doing anything.”
Stamos expects that the change will mainly apply to people accused of misdemeanors like disorderly conduct, trespassing or obstruction of justice. She says those charges often land on the county’s poorer residents, and that “results in people sitting in jail because they can’t afford $150 for a bond payment.” Instead, Stamos says it will now be solely up to judges to evaluate whether people charged with those sorts of offenses represent a flight risk or a danger to the community before setting a cash bond.
“The court has to make the decision anyway, and we’ll give the court the opportunity to understand what the facts are,” she said.
But the change still doesn’t sit well with Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-2nd District). Though she represents Prince William County in the legislature, she’s spent years as a public defender in Arlington, and has introduced a host of legislation to reform the state’s criminal justice system during her brief time in Richmond.
Foy notes that leaving bond decisions up to judges can leave the question of pretrial release subject to the same “implicit bias” that often lands low-income defendants of color in jail under the status quo. She’d much rather see Stamos move to the same system adopted by other states, which relies entirely on pretrial risk assessments to determine the conditions of a person’s release.
“For most misdemeanors, absent a glaring issue, those reports recommend releasing them,” Foy said. “I appreciate that she’s willing to have the conversation, and it’s a good start in the right direction. But I don’t see a hard and fast commitment being made here.”
Stamos says she’s reluctant to embrace more wholesale cash bail reforms, as she fears doing so would cripple a key funding source for the very staffers who monitor people once they’ve been released from jail. She points to New Jersey, in particular, as a state that’s made major cash bail reforms and run into such problems.
“If you don’t properly fund a robust pretrial service, you’ll have more people held without bond and who won’t get out at all,” Stamos said. “I can’t do away with cash bail by myself, because I can’t fund pretrial services. I have no ability to direct funds, and neither does the sheriff [who manages the county jail].”
Yet Foy believes Stamos is “conflating” the issues of pretrial services and cash bail reform. She argues that communities should indeed invest more money into such services, but she hasn’t seen nearly the same one-to-one relationship between ending cash bail and localities suddenly needing to hold people in jail without bond — after all, incarcerating people requires money as well.
Overall, however, Stamos is urging lawmakers like Foy to find a legislative fix and pass some sort of cash bail reform when the General Assembly reconvenes in a few months. Local Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th District) said he’d certainly be willing to do so, in a statement released alongside Stamos’ announcement.
“Theo continues to be a leader in the criminal justice reform movement,” Hope wrote. “I fully support her efforts today and look forward to working with her and others on the issue of bail reform when we convene in Richmond.”
Foy says she fully plans to introduce more legislation on the topic this year, and hopes to work with people across the criminal justice system to build a bit more support than it garnered in her first session in Richmond this year. But she also urged prosecutors like Stamos not to be content with waiting on the slow advance of legislative progress when they can act now.
“Virginia is in a position to lead change on this,” Foy said. “But they don’t have to wait for us to change things legislatively. Commonwealth’s attorneys have best practices they can implement in their own offices, and they can reduce the impact on minorities and the indigent right now.”
Photo via Facebook
Family Surprised to Learn Pet Was a Snapping Turtle — “An Arlington family took in a box turtle to be the new family pet recently — only to find out that it was actually a snapping turtle. The Animal Welfare League of Arlington tweeted out a photo of the turtle, noting that their officers had seized the turtle from the unwitting family.” [Patch, Twitter]
APS Delays Release of Construction Cost Report — “Arlington residents will have to wait a little longer for an analysis of the reasons behind the high costs of school construction in the county. The audit committees of the County Board and School Board had been slated to meet Aug. 7 in a joint session to discuss a report by school-system auditor John Mickevice on school-construction costs. That meeting, however, was called off.” [InsideNova]
TSA Keeps Finding Guns in Carry-ons at DCA — Earlier this month, in two separate incidents, TSA agents at Reagan National Airport seized loaded handguns from two men trying to carry them onto planes. The guns were the seventh and eighth seized at the airport so far this year. The men are now facing weapons charges. [Patch]
Jail Holds Creative Writing Contest — A 26-year-old man who’s in jail on a heroin possession charge won the Arlington County lockup’s first-ever creative writing contest yesterday. His prize-winning poem, in part: “I dream about the future. I dream about the past. I dream about the mountains. I dream about the sea. I dream of all the places that I would rather be.” [NBC Washington]
InsideNova Not Available in Europe — More than 1,000 U.S. news websites are blocking users from Europe after the EU implemented strict new privacy regulations known as GDPR on May 25. Among the sites that are no longer accessible from Europe, as seen in this screen shot from last month: InsideNova, which publishes articles from the Arlington Sun Gazette newspaper. [Nieman Journalism Lab]
FBI Renews Search for Hotel Rapist — A cold case is getting hotter as the FBI steps up the search for a man who raped hotel employees in the D.C. area, including in Arlington, between 1998 and 2006. Authorities still don’t know who the suspect is, but in a first for the region, the man’s DNA profile has been indicted for the crime. [FBI, NBC Washington, WTOP]
‘Unaccompanied Minors’ Housed at Local Facility? — “The feds may use a local juvenile detention center to house some of the nearly 2,000 children they’ve separated from their parents at the Mexican border. Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg said she’s expressed ‘strong concerns’ with the board that runs the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center, which has a contract to hold as many as 30 unaccompanied minors. The detention center is jointly run by Alexandria and Arlington.” [WUSA 9]
ACPD Helps Kid’s Dream Come True — “After over 900 days in foster care, Cameron’s wish came true when he found his forever family. During last week’s @Capitals visit, we were able to help him with his 2nd wish-touching the #StanleyCup! Today he stopped by to thank Officer Rihl for helping make his dream a reality!” [Twitter]
Local Tech Firm Signs Rosslyn Lease — As expected after being selected for a $60,000 Gazelle grant from Arlington County earlier this year, local tech firm Higher logic has signed a lease and is moving employees into a new 31,000 square foot headquarters space at Waterview Tower (1919 N. Lynn Street) in Rosslyn. The company, which makes community engagement software, acquired four companies last year. The new office offers “floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the Potomac River, an open, collaborative environment, and much needed room to expand.” [Washington Business Journal]
Firefighters Help Cool Kids Down — Earlier this week, with sweltering temperatures putting a damper on outdoor activities, an Arlington County fire engine helped Patrick Henry Elementary students cool down during their field day. [Twitter]
ACFD Trains for Water Rescues — The Arlington County Fire Department has a water rescue team, and before yesterday’s rains the team was training in the rapids at Great Falls. [Twitter]
Board Votes for Housing Conservation District — The Arlington County Board on Saturday voted 4-1 in favor of the creation of Housing Conservations Districts, which will make it more difficult for property owners to convert multifamily buildings into single-family homes. The Board says there is an urgent need to preserve market-rate affordable apartments, though critics charged that the Board rushed a decision that will restrict the rights of private property owners. [Washington Post]
Volunteers Place 245K Wreaths at ANC — “The weather was chilly but that didn’t stop huge crowds from heading to Arlington National Cemetery to help out with the annual wreath laying Saturday. Traffic was jammed and sidewalks were packed with long lines of volunteers.” [WTOP, Twitter]
Doctor Charged With Spiking Drink with Abortion Pill — A doctor who had recently moved to Arlington was arrested in May and charged with spiking his pregnant girlfriend’s drink with an abortion pill, which then caused her to lose the baby. He’s currently being held at the Arlington County jail, awaiting trial. [Fox News]
Bridging the Biking Gender Gap in Arlington — “Despite overall growth in the number of people biking to work, there are still some challenges that need to be addressed by cities, organizations, and employers for more women to bike more often.” [BikeArlington]
Children Visit Incarcerated Parents — Children of inmates at the Arlington County Detention Facility in Courthouse were able to visit and play with their incarcerated parents during the jail’s annual holiday party. [Washington Post]
Flickr pool photo by Phil
Planning for Transportation Changes in Rosslyn — “Local officials are now partnering with developers to make more improvements to help convince the next big corporate tenant to pick Rosslyn.” [Bisnow]
Teavana to Remain Open — Set to close next year, the Teavana store at Pentagon City mall is now expected to remain open thanks to a judge’s ruling against parent company Starbucks. [Washington Business Journal]
Lopez’s Detention Center Work Criticized — “Del. Alfonso H. Lopez, a Democrat who has represented a Hispanic-heavy South Arlington district since 2012, was paid more than $5,000 a year in 2014 and more than $10,000 a year in 2015 and 2016 by Immigration Centers of America (ICA), which operates a detention center in Farmville, Va. , according to his state financial disclosure reports.” [Washington Post]
Holiday Events for Incarcerated Parents — Today and tomorrow, the Arlington County jail will be hosting a pair of “special events to allow incarcerated mothers and fathers to visit with their children during the winter holidays.” [Arlington County]
ACPD Show Goes On Despite Snow — The Arlington County Police Department’s “Operation Santa” performance, featuring cops donning costumes and dancing for children in the community, went on Saturday despite the snowy weather. [Twitter]
Flickr pool photo by Erinn Shirley