Arlington County will hold a mock election tomorrow (Tuesday) to test out ranked-choice voting.
Voting will be open to the public from 2-4 p.m at the Ellen M. Bozman Government Center (2100 Clarendon Blvd). Those interested can then attend a second session from 5 -7 p.m to witness the process by which the ballots are counted.
The county will use the mock election to get feedback from voters on ballot layout, voting instructions, and on “tabulation scenarios,” officials said.
Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank candidates by preference on their ballot. Advocates for the system say that it leads to elections that are less negative and reduces the chance of an extreme candidate being elected, compared to a traditional winner-takes-all format. Some communities have ditched the election format after adopting it, however.
Arlington County and other Virginia localities have state authorization from the General Assembly to try out ranked-choice voting, but so far the county has held back from adopting it. Regulations are still being finalized by the state and are unlikely to be ready in time for an election until 2022, the Sun Gazette reports.
At a County Board meeting on July 17, proponents for the election system expressed frustration about the lack of progress in the transition to ranked-choice voting. In response, Board Vice-Chair Katie Cristol noted that the mechanics of ranked-choice voting were “complicated,” according to the Sun Gazette.
Earlier in the year, the Arlington County Civic Federation held Zoom meetings to discuss county voting reforms, chief among them ranked-choice voting.
Although not yet in use by the County Board, the Arlington County Democratic Committee does use ranked-choice voting to decide its nominations for government seats.
Last May, the ranked-choice system propelled Takis Karantonis to victory in the Democratic primary, even though his opponent Barbara Kanninen, who now chairs the School Board, collected the most first-preference votes. Karantonis went on to win the special election to fill Erik Gutshall’s County Board seat in a landslide over his Republican and independent opponents.
“The Arlington Democrats have been using Ranked Choice Voting for our internal endorsement and nomination processes for several years, seeing a strong value in identifying the candidate that draws the broadest support from Democratic voters,” said Maggie Davis, deputy chairperson of Arlington Dems, after the Democratic primary last year.
At a statewide level, Virginia’s Republican Party embraced ranked-choice voting this May, using the system to nominate Glenn Youngkin as their candidate for governor.
Hat tip to Dave Schutz
Arlington County’s form of government has largely stayed the same since 1930. Now, a local civic organization is inviting Arlingtonians to consider possible reforms.
The Arlington County Civic Federation, a nonprofit that provides a forum for about 90 civic groups to discuss community topics, is holding a series of Zoom meetings to discuss reforms, from changing the number of County Board members and their term limits to moving to ward-based Board representation to using ranked-choice voting.
“We are excited to engage in this important work of exploring ways to make our already well-functioning government even better and more representative of the communities it serves,” said Chris Wimbush, who chairs the subgroup looking into these changes.
That subgroup is the Task Force in Governance and Election Reform (TiGER), which was formed to look into implementing ranked-choice voting and other electoral reforms. CivFed launched the group after the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation allowing ranked-choice voting in local elections.
The committee’s deep dive includes these discussions, which kicked off May 17 and will continue every Monday through July, except Memorial Day. These meetings will evaluate the current state of Arlington elections, its form of government and public input structures, as well as models for reform.
“Arlington citizens can expect that the TiGER will, over the next year, conduct public fora and meetings regarding the current state of Arlington’s form of government and electoral system,” according to a press release. “TiGER will regularly report to the Arlington County Board, the Arlington School Board, community and civic groups, and the CivFed membership.”
The subgroup is also tasked with improving representation on the County Board and evaluating district representation rather than county-wide board elections. Already, the discussions have drawn people who want to see changes.
“I think in Arlington we’re so heavily Democratic,” attendee Douglas MacIvor said during the first meeting. “I like the district concept in order to get… different communities represented, but then I would worry that each district would end up becoming more polarized if we don’t have some mechanism to try to push towards more moderation from those candidates.”
Another meeting attendee, Michael Beer, said Arlington is diverse in ethnicity, gender and age but “where we’re falling short substantially is in competitive races.”
Ranked-choice voting, the main reason why TiGER was formed, is one of the biggest changes being discussed. People would rank their top County Board and School Board candidates and in cascading series of rounds the candidate with the fewest number of votes would be eliminated until a winner is selected.
Proponents say it can help more minorities get elected and reduce the impact of “spoiler” candidates who “siphon” votes away from leading ones. Still, some communities have repealed the election format after adopting it.
George Mason University’s Mark Rozell, the dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government, told ARLnow that ranked-choice voting can help more centrist candidates but not always.
“I give the edge to candidates who have broader rather than intensive factional support,” Rozell said about the people who benefit from instant runoffs.
Ranked-choice voting has already been tested in Arlington. Last year, the Arlington County Democratic caucus used it, resulting in Takis Karantonis leapfrogging to victory in the third round to capture the party’s County Board nomination. He went on to win a seat on the board last July.
This change would require the County Board to pass an ordinance but local officials are still waiting on more state guidance. Gretchen Reinemeyer, the county’s general registrar, said guidelines could be discussed in June by the Virginia State Board of Elections.
One TiGER member, Chanda Choun, is stepping aside while he challenges Karantonis in his bid for the County Board.
It’s not just civically-involved residents who have argued for changes to the way Arlington is governed. Longtime former Arlington County Board member Jay Fisette said shortly before his retirement that he thinks Arlington’s form of government should be changed from that of a county, governed by an elected County Board and managed by an unelected County Manager, to that of a city, with an elected mayor and city council.
Now the county will advertise a draft ordinance that, if approved in the summer, would outline the roles and responsibilities of this review board. Board member Takis Karantonis dissented.
“As we discuss and debate this ordinance over the next two months, we must both recognize that our community has an interest in additional accountability and transparency related to law enforcement and respect the diligent efforts of our public safety personnel,” said Matt de Ferranti, Chair of the Arlington County Board, in a statement.
What the civilian review board would look like was discussed by the Police Practices Work Group over the last year, which in February presented myriad ways to reform the police department. Some of the powers it suggested the board should have are included in the ordinance.
As written, Arlington’s civilian review board would be able to receive complaints about police conduct, review the police chief’s disciplinary decisions, as well as review finished police investigations, data, policies and the ACPD budget. It would also be able to recommend policy changes and conduct hearings and community outreach.
But it would not have the ability to independently and concurrently investigate officers, which the PPG recommends but County Manager Mark Schwartz does not.
Karantonis said last night the proposed ordinance is deficient in many ways, particularly because the authority to independently investigate a police officer is not baked in. He supported deferring the motion.
“Not a single person who testified for the advertisement of the ordinance as submitted,” he said. “In my inbox, I don’t see a single email in support.”
Fifteen PPG participants, community members and advocates told the County Board to defer action so the ordinance could be rewritten to allow for independent investigations.
“The Black and brown community is telling you that we need a civilian review board with teeth,” said community member Wilma Jones.
Minneapolis’s weak review board allowed Derek Chauvin to remain an officer despite multiple complaints of misconduct before he killed George Floyd, said Michelle Woolley, of Arlington for Justice. Meanwhile, the review board in St Louis, unable to investigate police shootings concurrently with police, had to wait more than five years to evaluate 21 shootings.
Public defender Brad Haywood said in a letter to the county that review-only models found in Virginia Beach and Fairfax are seen as “rubber stamps for police internal affairs.”
“The review bodies rarely recommend corrective action, and so far as I know they have never brought about proactive measures to address broader institutional problems, such as racial disparities in traffic enforcement or over-policing of misdemeanor conduct,” he said.
After the meeting, Julius D. Spain, Jr., the president of the Arlington branch of the NAACP, told ARLnow the board needs to revise the ordinance’s “admitted defects.”
“This current version of the CRB is not equitable and will not hold up in the long term to engender trust by our community in the public safety system,” he said. “The voices of communities of color need to be centered in this conversation.”
The public can provide direct feedback throughout June and at the July meeting. After the Board votes in July, assuming the ordinance is approved and not deferred, members of the review board would be appointed in the fall.
In a report, the county articulated many reasons not to include investigative powers.
Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz aims to have a new police chief in place within the next month or two.
And this police chief, he said during a meeting last week, must appreciate Arlington’s diversity and understand how different communities react to police presence.
“Our police officers meet with residents, visitors and those who work here during the most stressful moments of their lives,” he said. “I’m looking for a chief who understands our community gains strength from its diversity.”
The police department has been without a permanent leader since September, when the former police chief M. Jay Farr retired, citing souring relations with the County Board as one of his reasons for leaving. Acting chief Andy Penn is leading in his place.
Meantime, Schwartz has been conducting a nationwide search while a consultant, Leroy Thompson, gathered input from police officers and community members.
The consultant found that police officers want a chief who will boost morale, support officers, regain their trust and help improve race relations, Thompson said. They are wary of the county overreacting to a national narrative that “wasn’t severe in Arlington,” he said.
The community, meanwhile, wants a chief who will build relationships in the community and with other county departments to address peoples’ needs, Thompson said. They envision an approach to law enforcement that focuses on connecting people with needed services, instead of the current strategy centered on punishment, which they say is a holdover from the war on drugs, he said.
One area of agreement? Thompson said the community and police officers stressed the new hire should not seem like a political appointment.
Amid a national dialogue on race and policing, Arlington has taken several steps to respond to calls for police reform, including recently budgeting for full time police auditor/monitor position and a civilian mental health crisis response team.
Schwartz said a consultant is also reviewing ACPD’s policies guiding use of force, body-worn cameras, and the collection of data, as well as how successful the department is at recruiting and retaining officers. The report was set to come last fall but has yet to arrive, he said.
This past winter, the county implemented a body-worn camera program, and in January, Penn signed onto the Northern Virginia Regional Critical Incident Response Team, which allows for an independent investigation into serious uses of police force.
In February, a “Police Practices Group” convened last summer presented myriad ways to change how the police respond to behavioral health crises and enforce traffic violations. Schwartz said he expects the new chief to carry out these recommendations.
“It’s my firm expectation — I have made it clear to anyone who has interviewed for the position — that they will follow all the recommendations I support from the PPG and he/she is free to challenge me on those I didn’t recommend,” Schwartz said. “I expect whoever the next police chief is will be walking around with a tired, tattered copy of this document in his or her front pocket.”
A press release from Farr’s retirement timed the hiring to come after the PPG wrapped up its work. One of its recommendations is the creation of a civilian review board.
Leading up to the formation of the Police Practices Work Group, locals were protesting police violence against unarmed civilians and the county had received a number of complaints about police conduct, as well as calls for police reform.
On Monday, 15 Arlington County residents presented the highlights of their report — which included more than 100 recommendations — to County Manager Mark Schwartz. They suggested a model for a civilian review board, changes to how police enforce traffic violations and provide mental health services, and lastly, alternatives to the police for resolving disputes.
“It’s an excellent piece of work,” Schwartz said.
All the recommendations can be found in the final report.
Assuming the county establishes a police review board, members said it should be one made of civilians with an independent auditor presiding. The review board would have up to 15 Arlington County residents and would be closed to current and former ACPD officials. The board would have the authority to conduct independent investigations and compel the release of information.
These authorities would not be used lightly, said Rodney Turner, a committee member.
“We will try to do things without getting a subpoena first and we will look to ACPD reports to see if any investigation by the oversight body is necessary,” he said.
Another group looked for ways to improve road safety without hurting underprivileged communities. It recommended, among other things, more automated traffic enforcement cameras and a sliding payment scale for fines.
But “technology is not the panacea,” member Kathleen McSweeney said. Privacy remains a concern and the county should be sensitive to camera placement so certain communities do not feel targeted, she said.
Implementation of the sliding scale would likely require action by the state legislature, said Allison Carpenter, who chaired the traffic enforcement group.
Additionally, the county should delegate the response to most mental health crises to clinicians and volunteers, said Naomi Verdugo, the chair of the mental health subcommittee. Police would only respond as a last resort or if the risk of violence is high.
Verdugo also said the county’s Crisis Intervention Center should be staffed with more clinicians and advertised as a place where police, emergency services and family members can drop off people experiencing crises. The report recommends upping non-police security staffing at the center.
Finally, a group focused on ways to change Arlington’s “culture of calling 9-1-1,” and finding other ways of resolving disputes between neighbors.
Devanshi Patel, who chaired the alternative dispute resolution subcommittee, noted that many 9-1-1 calls are related to “suspicious activity,” which can take many forms. She recommended a private-public campaign focused on the importance of properly using 9-1-1 and choosing another hotline or resource in other circumstances.
Patel said the legal system needs to be reformed “from entry to exit,” especially to divert people from being detained unnecessarily.
“The focus should be placed on opportunities for ways to avoid criminal records because of collateral consequences not only to the person but also the community,” she said.
In the next few weeks, the county will receive an independent study from law enforcement expert Marcia Thompson, who examined ACPD policies and data on the use of force, training and supervision, body-worn cameras, recruitment and retention and internal affairs.
Image via Arlington County
While arguing that ACPD is one of the most educated and well-trained police forces around, the association says that some changes may make sense. Defunding the department, however, could result in lower-quality policing, they say.
“Our officers in Arlington County are well-educated, highly trained, thoughtful men and women,” Arlington Coalition of Police President Scott Wanek said in an interview with ARLnow last week. “They’ve been delivering high-quality police services to the Arlington community for decades.”
As police departments around the country are scrutinized for excessive use of force, and as outrage over police killings boils over, the message from the association is: ACPD is different.
In Arlington, entry-level officers with no prior police or military experience are required to have completed 60 semester hours at an accredited college or university. Most officers have bachelor degrees and many have post-graduate degrees, according to Wanek.
That level of education, and the extensive training that Arlington officers receive, set the department apart.
“At every stop in [field officer training] de-escalation is taught. We have implicit bias training. We teach exhaustive conflict communications training, to include 75% of our officers are certified in our [Crisis Intervention Team] program… for mental health crisis situations,” said Wanek. “A lot of training goes in to our officers.”
Out of about 118,000 police-citizen interactions in 2019, Wanek said, there were 67 uses of force.
“Our goal is to do what we can to reduce it even further, that’s always a worthwhile endeavor,” he said, “especially since in about 40% of the cases our officers sustain injuries in interactions where they’re required to use force.”
Asked about a rising rate of complaints about ACPD officers in 2019, Wanek said some of that is attributable to changes in the way such data is recorded. He pointed out that most of the complaints were generated within the department.
“We don’t just stand idly by,” said Wanek. “That’s not in our culture.”
As for the now-infamous deployment of riot-clad ACPD officers near the White House — the squad was removed after being ordered to clear peaceful protesters away from a presidential photo op — Wanek defended the officers involved.
“In retrospect, it’s unfortunate that we were put in that position,” he said. The officers “behaved well, didn’t violate any policy, procedure, or laws. We certainly didn’t appreciate the optics we got, and we’re looking to move forward, collaborate with the community, and be a voice in the discussion of how we’re going to change law enforcement and the criminal justice system.”
“The residents of Arlington have a right and a responsibility to decide how they’re policed,” Wanek continued. “That’s where the faith in our badges come from. We can’t effectively enforce the laws of the Commonwealth if the community doesn’t believe in us.”
In terms of proposed reforms, Arlington officers are “clearly in support of any reasonable idea that leads to reduced use of force and officer injuries,” according to Wanek. That includes the forthcoming use of body cameras.
(Updated at 2 p.m.) A newly-formed group is calling for a sweeping set of police reforms in Arlington, including cutting the police department budget by 10%.
Arlington for Justice, whose founding steering committee members include Arlington’s top public defender and a prominent local Black Lives Matter organizer, published an open letter to the Arlington County Board over the weekend.
Among other things, the letter calls for:
- Reallocating “at least 10%” of the Arlington County’s Police Department’s $74 million annual budget, then freezing the budget for five years
- Using the budget savings to fund pre-arrest diversion programs, mental health services and addiction treatment
- Removing School Resource Officers from schools
- Require continuous use of body cameras and dashboard cameras by ACPD
- Make the disciplinary history of officers publicly accessible
- Establishment of a “Justice Transformation Commission… to manage the implementation of these recommendations”
The letter also calls for ACPD to conduct a national search for a new police chief “who is committed to justice system transformation, eliminating bias, and implementing new methods of policing.” A police spokeswoman confirmed to ARLnow that current chief M. Jay Farr “will be retiring from his position at the end of 2020,” as stated in the latter.
On Friday, County Board member Christian Dorsey appeared on WAMU’s Politics Hour with Kojo Nnamdi and discussed the police reform movement, which has received momentum locally after ARLnow broke the news of Arlington officers in riot gear assisting U.S. Park Police near the White House. (The officers were quickly pulled out of D.C. after helping to clear the way for a presidential photo in front of a church.)
“We’re getting a lot of letters from people with the defund the police calls,” Dorsey said. “I will just note that the budget for the police department over the last eight, nine years has risen only slightly higher than the rate of inflation. And, you know, of the 74 million, most of it, all but about 7.5 million, is tied to personnel [and a] substantial amount of that is devoted to community policing efforts.”
“So, when it comes to what you defund, I think you first look at any tactical weapons and gear that are not necessary to meet your police obligations, and we don’t have a lot of that in Arlington,” Dorsey continued. “We have very much looked on an annual basis to make sure we’re not prioritizing the spending on weapons and toys and things like that that create militarized police forces.”
Dorsey added, in response to a question from co-host Tom Sherwood, that calls to defund the police “will be weaponized” politically against Democrats.
“Let’s rethink policing, let’s restructure it and let’s take any savings and reinvest it in people,” he said. “That, unfortunately, is a little bit longer than defund the police. So, we’ve got this catchall slogan which will be weaponized by other folks. And I think that’s something that people need to be very wary about.”
More on the group and the reforms it is seeking is below, in a press release.
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.”
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.
Is the Virginia prison system failing those with mental illnesses? Does the state need to reform its re-entry program? Those were among the topics of discussion Thursday night at a town hall meeting on prison reform, held by local Arlington delegates Adam Ebbin and Patrick Hope.
Helen Trainer of the Legal Aid Justice Center pointed to a story of an inmate who wasn’t allowed to self-medicate in his prison cell. Told to wait in the daily line at the clinic, he ultimately suffered numerous seizures and left the prison as a quadriplegic. Trainer believes the story is not an isolated incident and is indicative of the reform needed throughout the nation’s criminal justice system.
Trainer said prison employees, more often than not, falsely believe that inmates’ behavior stems from a lack of control, rather than from mental health problems. Identifying individuals with mental health issues from the point of intake and diverting them to mental health facilities could help alleviate many of the outbreaks that occur in prisons, she explained.
Scott Richeson of the Virginia Department of Corrections spoke about the department’s new emphasis on prisoner re-entry programs. He said that 13,500 people are released from Virginia’s prisons annually, but only 600-800 are paroled, making Virginia one of the country’s lowest parole-granting states. And of the 13,500 prisoners released, 28.5 percent are incarcerated again within three years.