UVA Symposium Discusses Crime and Mental Illness

March 29, 2017 | By Matt Talhelm

The way police and courts respond to people suffering a mental health crisis is changing in the commonwealth.

The University of Virginia School of Law hosted a symposium Wednesday, March 29, in an effort to remove the stigma of mental illness.

The Criminal Justice and Mental Illness symposium focused on ways law enforcement and the judicial system are dealing with people in mental health crisis.

Law students and professors heard from Tom von Hemert, the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) coordinator for the Thomas Jefferson Area. He works with law enforcement agencies in Charlottesville and surrounding counties, including UVA Police Sergeant Rayshaun Gause, to provide CIT training to police officers. The training is designed to prepare them for how to approach people experiencing a mental health emergency.

“It all goes back to listening to them. Why are you feeling this way? What is going on? How can I help you?” Gause said.

von Hemert says CIT training for police officers helped reduce the average daily inmate population at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail by 100.

“They’re seeing better outcomes where people, instead of just being arrested are being helped to get to the right services that are out there,” he said.

911 operators are also being trained to ask better questions of people in crisis.

Virginia 23rd District Judge Jacqueline Ward-Talevi was on hand at the event to discuss how her court in Roanoke offers alternative sentencing for misdemeanor offenders with mental illness.

The judge says 204 people have gone through the therapeutic docket, which Ward-Talevi set up back in 2011.

She says those who take part in the program are less likely to commit another crime and more likely to stay connected with services in the community.

“They feel good about themselves. They do not feel the stigma of being mentally ill, and they go on with their lives,” said the judge.

A Virginia Supreme Court rule went into effect this year to recognize these types of specialty docket programs.