City rolls out new mental health initiative

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Commonwealth's Attorney for the City of Alexandria Bryan Porter in front of the courthouse (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)
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By Denise Dunbar | ddunbar@alextimes.com

The city’s Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney announced a new mental health initiative on Tuesday that aims to help people with severe mental illness who have been accused of a crime receive treatment instead of jail time.

Molly Sullivan is spearheading the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s new mental health program (Courtesy Photo)

Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter announced he is assigning senior supervisory prosecutor Molly Sullivan to oversee the new Mental Health Initiative. Sullivan, who is Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney, will be responsible for screening cases for possible participation in the initiative. She will then monitor the cases selected, working with community partners to ensure compliance with the conditions of the program.

The goal of the initiative is to address the underlying cause of crimes committed by people with severe mental illness. It is designed to decrease the length of any incarceration and to avoid it entirely in those cases where the safety of the community can be served by pre-trial services, mental health treatment and/or probation.

In announcing the initiative, Porter stressed that the public must remember that mental illness is a disease.

“As a society, we simply must do a better job in addressing mental illness. Far too often, police, the sheriff and prosecutors are asked to be the primary treatment providers for the mentally ill, and it should be obvious that we have neither the expertise nor the resources to adequately address the myriad of issues raised by mentally ill citizens,” Porter said in a statement.

The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office will work closely with other city agencies, including the Department of Community and Human Services, the Sheriff’s Pre-Trial Services/Local Probation program and Adult Probation and Parole.

Any adult who is charged in General District Court or Circuit Court may be considered for participation in the Mental Health Initiative if they 1) suffer from severe mental illness and 2) that mental illness substantially contributed to the charged crime(s). Factors that will be considered in deciding whether the person may participate in the initiative include:

Whether the accused is charged with a violent crime, and if so, the facts surrounding the crime;

  • Whether anyone was victimized by the charged crime, and if so, what the victim thinks about the accused’s participation in the initiative;
  • The accused’s mental health diagnosis;
  • Whether the accused is willing to participate in the program;
  • Whether the accused has previously been provided significant mental health services through the criminal justice system; and
  • Whether the accused has a substantial record of criminal convictions.

Veterans of the Armed Forces who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury are eligible for participation in the initiative.

Porter said that his office is not receiving any additional funding or personnel
for the initiative, therefore, unless additional funding is secured, the number of persons who may participate is limited.

Participants in the initiative are eligible for multiple dispositions regarding their criminal charges. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the case, these dispositions may include:

  • Diversion of the charge from the criminal justice system at the point where a warrant would otherwise be sought, especially in the case of minor, non-violent offenses where the defendant is immediately hospitalized for treatment;
  • Suspended imposition of a sentence, with an ultimate dismissal of the charge upon full compliance with terms of probation, including mental health treatment and medication compliance;
  • A suspended sentence with probation, to include compliance with mental health treatment and medication compliance, in lieu of service of a jail sentence;
  • An amendment of the charge to a lesser offense, thus reducing the severity of the potential sentence; and
  • Agreed “Not guilty by reason of insanity” dispositions where appropriate, accomplished in an expedited manner to reduce the time in custody prior to hospitalization for evaluation and treatment.

Porter stressed that if the program is successful, everyone will win: the person
accused, who will get mental health treatment instead of jail time; society, which will be protected from future crimes from the person if their mental illness is not treated and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, which can then focus on crime.

“If we lessen the stigma attached to those suffering from mental illness, we significantly increase the potential for successful intervention and treatment,” Porter said in the statement.

“People who suffer from mental illness may commit a criminal offense without a true understanding of the nature and consequences of their actions. In these cases, the best use of my office’s limited resources is to attempt to address the underlying reasons for the criminal conduct at issue.” Porter said he hopes to have several people enrolled in the initiative by February.

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