14 July 2015
From terrible acts of mass violence that make the national news, to the local man just convicted of his third DUI, mental illness is at the heart of a greater percentage of crimes than most people realize. How cases involving the mentally ill should be handled – by the police, the prosecution, and the courts – is being reconsidered across the country.
According to a 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics Report by Doris J. James and Lauren E. Glaze, an estimated 1.26 million prisoners in this country are mentally ill – defined as exhibiting symptoms of mental illness or previously diagnosed with a mental illness. This is 45 percent of federal offenders, 56 percent of state offenders, and 64 percent of jail inmates.
In Fluvanna, law enforcement, prosecution, mental health care providers and the courts all play a role in doing what they can to be sure that appropriate punishment and treatment are meted out to those who come through the criminal justice system.
The Fluvanna County Sheriff’s Office has deputies who have received extensive training in identifying people with mental illness, how to handle the mentally ill in stressful situations, and how to inform them and their family members of resources that might be available to them in the community.
“A fair number of our officers have Crisis Intervention Training (CIT),” said Fluvanna Sheriff’s Office Captain Von Hill. CIT teaches officers how to recognize when someone is suffering from a mental illness, and gives them training in how to de-escalate a situation and manage the individual for the best possible outcome. Officers also receive training in what resources are available for the mentally ill in their community, and can make referrals to those resources if an arrest is not necessary.
“When it comes down to mental health being a part of crime, we have worked very diligently over the last decade – and more so over the last half of this decade – to come up with more appropriate approaches for people who are suffering mental illness, and to identify them early so they don’t end up in jail,” said Hill, who added that it can be difficult to discern whether someone’s behavior is caused by mental illness or not. For his officers with CIT training, Hill said, “It is a little easier to interpret the right resources, so that if the person is going to court, this person may need direction from a court order to deal with certain parts of their disorder – maybe it is more mandatory that they participate with certain counseling and such.
“One of the things CIT tries to drive home is that mental illness is an illness,” emphasized Hill. If you saw a person walking down the street who was behaving erratically, you might say ‘Oh, that person is crazy.’ But what would you say if you saw a person was in a wheelchair – you wouldn’t say those things. The person suffering a mental illness is not responsible for their condition.