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Prison or Mental Health Facility?

The death of an inmate who suffered from mental illness at the Hampton Roads jail has prompted a series of changes in Virginia, but sheriffs remain concerned that jails have become de facto mental institutions.

A bill signed into law by Governor Terry McAuliffe last month will change how inmate deaths are investigated. And community services board across Virginia will have new funding so that patients can get same-day service. But Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran says that’s not enough.

“We would prefer to put the resources at the front end and prevent these individuals from even ending up in our criminal justice system. But once they’re there we need to deal with them.”

For example he would like to see mental health screenings of inmates who arrive at jails, although he wasn’t successful getting funding for that earlier this year. And even if he did get funding, he acknowledges it wouldn’t solve the problem. So what would solve the problem? Greg Champagne at the National Sheriff’s Association says he’s hopeful Congress will take action.

“To provide more outpatient care and the availability of resources where the courts can refer people that come to them on minor stuff and hold that probationary stick over them, 'Hey you need to go to the mental health clinic.'”

In 2015, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd and Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy introduced a bipartisan bill that Champagne says would have accomplished that goal. So far, though, Congress has yet to take action on it.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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