Court’s behavioral health docket ‘A growing experience’

Virginia’s Christiansburg (AP) – A unique program for a select group of defendants with mental health concerns in Montgomery County recently celebrated its inaugural graduation with cupcakes, banners of congratulations, and the dropping of criminal charges.

The Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary Pettitt told the two graduates who were present at the event, which was conducted in a General District courthouse, “You can go out there and be successful.” Two more graduates, according to Pettitt, did not attend the event.

The Behavioral Health Docket, which was established last year, focuses on a narrowly defined group of individuals who have been accused of misdemeanor crimes and who suffer from mental health conditions that are severe enough to interfere with their lives but not so severe as to render them legally immune from liability. The defendants in the Behavioral Health Docket meet twice a month with a judge and a panel that includes treatment professionals in a procedure that is similar to that employed by drug courts in Montgomery County and elsewhere. Together, they examine the defendants’ problems and how they are resolving them, whether they relate to job, housing, healthcare, or other challenges.

According to Judge Gino Williams, who is in charge of the special court, the objective of the close examination is “getting them out of the scenario that brought them on the docket in the first place.”

In a written review of the program to date, Pettitt noted predicted advantages such as a decrease in criminal charges, ER visits, and detention orders; a decrease in the community’s financial expenditures; and an improvement in the lives of offenders.

Bringing defendants to graduation, when they are regarded ready to exercise greater independence, should take approximately a year or two. According to Pettitt, some offenders still face convictions but may have their prison sentence postponed if they engage in the program, while others can have their charges dropped if they finish it.

Williams informed the grads that he had earlier that day thrown out their complaints.

Both graduates expressed gratitude to the program’s planners and said that taking part in the Behavioral Health Docket had changed their lives.

“It has been a learning process. Austin Jaret Duncan of Christiansburg, who had attempted assault and battery allegations dismissed, stated, “I don’t believe I would have gone to school without it.

Duncan said that he had completed one year of an online psychology bachelor’s program. He said that his ultimate goal is to transfer to a physical institution and pursue a career in either psychology or neuroscience.

Williams congratulated Duncan and inquired about his academic performance.

Still A’s, said Duncan.

William chuckled. I can’t say that has ever happened to me, he said.

Circuit Court Judge Robert Turk, who is in charge of the county’s drug court, Montgomery County Supervisor Sherri Blevins, and County Administrator Craig Meadows were among those who applauded the grads.

The New River Valley’s Montgomery County Behavioral Health Docket is the first of its type. Williams expressed his hope that it will ultimately be extended to other 27th Judicial District courts.

A therapeutic docket is a long-standing program used in Salem, Roanoke County, and those three cities together.

According to Pettitt’s written report, the Montgomery County program has so far received referrals for around 25 individuals from defense lawyers, the court, or probation officials. In order to determine if the Behavioral Health Docket could be helpful, Pettitt said she considers the charges and criminal history, gets feedback from the victims and law enforcement, and recommends applications to New River Valley Community Services.

Even before the individual officially enters the program, Community Resources “has been terrific at getting the person into essential services,” Pettitt wrote.

The second graduate, who requested that her name not be published in the newspaper, acknowledged that the program had helped her get the assistance she had been looking for for years.

Pettitt writes that out of the 25 candidates, 14 were accepted into the program. Four individuals dropped out of the program before it was over: two were hit with fresh charges, one requested to leave, and one “went MIA,” according to Pettitt.

Pettitt stated in her remarks to the graduates that the new curriculum was a pleasant change from most of her work.

“I do work in the criminal justice field. If I didn’t have any clients, it would be great,” Pettitt added. “… I’m tremendously thrilled if I can help them leave the criminal justice system and rejoin society as contributing members.

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