Mental health docket under scrutiny

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - A special court docket that helps to keep mentally ill inmates out of the city jail was called into question this week. The program is key to preventing overcrowding as the city prepares to build a smaller jail.

The mental health docket was started 7 months ago. It allows mentally ill defendants to be evaluated by a doctor so instead of serving their time at the city jail, they can get the treatment they need at the proper facility under supervised probation.

Now, the program is under scrutiny. A memo from Chief Justice Cynthia Kinser, sent to every court in the state this week, is raising serious questions about the legitimacy of Richmond's mental health docket.

Justice Kinser writes "some jurisdictions have created problem-solving courts or specialized dockets that are similar in many respects to the drug treatment courts."

But she goes on to say these "specialized courts" "…have not obtained the required approval of the Drug Treatment Court Advisory Committee and the General Assembly."

"I don't see how we can get around the fact that we're doing a specialized docket for a unique situation without prior approval from the General Assembly, said Charles Samuels.

Councilman Charles Samuels says he fully supports the docket and hopes it continues but he worries it's another example of moving forward on a new jail without proper approval.

"If we're trying to reduce the inmate population in our jail with this program, we want to make sure we've dotted all our i's and crossed all our t's," said Samuels.

The program takes all the cases involving the mentally ill and puts them before one judge every other week, so there's consistency.

"The studies all suggest that the jails have become the dumping ground for the mentally ill and so you have dockets and initiatives like this popping up everywhere," said commonwealth attorney Michael Herring.

Herring believes the memo was meant for drug courts but does worry local judges may link it to the city's mental health initiative.

"In an abundance of caution I'll sit down with our judges when I get a chance and try to get clarification on their interpretation. But we're going to continue business as usual as long as we can," said Herring.

The next mental health docket is set for Tuesday. The judge who oversees that docket could not be reached for comment.

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