Behavioral Health Court Docket ‘A Growing Experience’


CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. — Montgomery County Behavioral Health Docket, a special program for a small group of defendants with mental health issues, marked its first graduation recently with cupcakes, congratulatory banners and the dismissal of criminal charges.

“They can go out and be successful,” Commonwealth attorney Mary Pettitt told the two graduates who attended the ceremony, held in a General District courtroom. Two other people graduated but did not attend the ceremony, Pettitt said.

Launched last year, the Behavioral Health Docket targets a carefully selected set of people who have been charged with misdemeanors and who have mental health issues that are severe enough to disrupt their lives, but not so severe that they are held legally responsible for their actions. . In a process similar to that used by drug courts in Montgomery County and elsewhere, defendants on the behavioral health record meet twice a month with a judge and a group that includes treatment providers. Together, they review the issues defendants are facing and how they are being treated, whether it is health care, housing, employment, or other issues.

The goal of the intensive scrutiny is “to get them out of the situation that put them on the record in the first place,” said Judge Gino Williams, who oversees the special court.

In a written summary of the program so far, Pettitt listed anticipated benefits including fewer criminal charges, emergency room visits and warrants; reduced financial costs for the community; and improvement in the life of the defendants.

It should take about a year to get defendants to the point of graduation, when they are judged ready to assume greater independence. Some defendants still face convictions but have jail time suspended if they participate in the program, others have charges dismissed if they successfully complete the program, Pettitt wrote.

Williams told the graduates that he had dismissed the charges earlier that day.

Both graduates thanked the organizers of the program and said that participating in the behavioral health file was life-changing for them.

“It has been a growth experience. I don’t think I would have gone to school without him,” said Austin Jaret Duncan of Christiansburg, who was dismissed on charges of assault and battery, and attempted assault and battery.

Duncan said he’s been in an online program for a year to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She said she hopes to transfer to an in-person university and eventually work in psychology or neuroscience.

Williams told Duncan, “We’re proud of you,” and asked how his grades were.

“It’s still A,” Duncan said.

Williams laughed. “I can’t say that has never happened to me,” she said.

Among those who applauded the graduates were Circuit Court Judge Robert Turk, who oversees the county Drug Court, Montgomery County Supervisor Sherri Blevins and County Administrator Craig Meadows.

The Montgomery County Behavioral Health File is the first of its kind in the New River Valley. Williams said he hopes it will eventually expand to other courts in the 27th Judicial District.

Roanoke, Roanoke County, and Salem have long had a similar program called the therapeutic record.

In his written summary, Pettitt said the Montgomery County program has so far had about 25 people referred by defense attorneys, court or probation officers. Pettitt said he reviews previous criminal records and charges, solicits input from victims and law enforcement, and refers applicants to New River Valley Community Services to determine if the Behavioral Health File might help.

Community Services “has been excellent in getting the person to access needed services even before they formally enter the program,” Pettitt wrote.

The second graduate asked not to be identified in the newspaper, but acknowledged that the program connected her with the help she had sought for years.

Of the 25 applicants, 14 were approved for the program, Pettitt wrote. Four people left the show before completing it: two incurred new criminal charges, one asked to leave, and one “went MIA,” Pettitt wrote.

Speaking to the graduates, Pettitt said the new program was a welcome contrast to much of his work.

“I work the criminal side of things. I would be happy not to have clients,” Pettitt said. “…If I can get people out of the criminal justice system and back to being productive members of society, that makes me very happy.”

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