Virginia addressing mental health within jails

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On Tuesday, mental health inside Virginia’s jails was the topic of discussion at the State Capitol.

The way Virginia handles the mentally ill behind bars is still fresh on many minds.

“We were all thinking the same thing,” said Public Safety & Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Victoria Cochran. “In light of the Jamycheal Mitchell case, how do we do reviews of deaths in jail in an efficient and productive way?”

Mitchell, 24, had a mental illness. He was arrested for stealing in 2015 and died of starvation at Hampton Roads Regional Jail.

On Tuesday, the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the Twenty-First Century (Criminal Justice Diversion Work Group) got an update on what the state is doing to address these types of incidents.

Last month, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-Virginia) signed legislation authorizing the Board of Corrections to review deaths in jails. It also requires the nine-member board to be made up of people with certain expertise, like mental health.

Cochran said they are currently soliciting applications and hope to have the updated board in place by July 1.

Robyn de Socio, Compensation Board Executive Secretary, also addressed the subcommittee. She spoke about mental health screening of jail inmates in the commonwealth.

“How do we do reviews of deaths in jail in an efficient and productive way?” — Victoria Cochran

Each year, the Compensation Board gives an overview of mental health screenings at jails. In 2016, de Socio said 51 Virginia jails reported screening all inmates at booking, four screened some and three didn’t screen any at booking.

New state language requires two things: First, jails must use validated instruments for their screening process.

The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Services (DBHDS) designated two validated screening instruments: Brief Jail Mental Health Screen and Correctional Mental Health Screen for Women.

In 2016, half the jails reported using the Brief Jail Mental Health Screen. Twelve reported using something else.

The second requirement under the new language is for the Compensation Board to review its jail staffing standards. The review will include an evaluation of the costs and benefits of requiring an assessment within 72 hours of the time of the initial screening (by a qualified mental health professional) of the need for mental health services in cases where the initial screening indicates the person might have a mental illness.

In 2016, 44 jails reported they assessed all inmates who positively screened for mental illness.

“In approximately 40 percent of cases, the screenings are performed by jail officers and not by mental health professionals,” de Socio said of the 2016 data.

The Compensation Board is currently in the process of gathering data for 2017.

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