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Sunday, July 21, 2013
Last month, a young woman I’ll call Mary stood in Roanoke County General District Court for final disposition of the petty larceny case against her.
Mary’s guilt was not in doubt, but the judge dismissed the charge — gladly.
“I didn’t think we’d see this day,” Judge Jacqueline Talevi said, her measured words offered with quiet satisfaction — and perhaps a trace of triumph — directly to the woman standing before the bench.
“I was hearing, ‘I don’t know if she is committed to her sobriety.’ . . . We all had concerns.
“Then it was like the switch turned on. In spite of the fact it was not easy — being a mom, being there for your children, assisting your parents. Taking charge of your life. . . . Mentally, you’re a different woman standing in front of me.”
“I couldn’t be prouder of you.”
The judge sounded like a principal preparing to hand a diploma to that student who had screwed up repeatedly, but beat long odds. In a sense, that is what she was doing.
Mary’s case was on the court’s mental health therapeutic docket, a program in the Roanoke Valley that Talevi conceived as a unique sentencing alternative for people diagnosed with a serious mental illness who have committed misdemeanors. Most have major depression, bipolar disorders or mild forms of schizophrenia. Some are first offenders, but many are not.
“I kept seeing people with particular issues coming before me,” Talevi said later in her chambers. Neither punishment nor the threat of more punishment had changed their behavior.
“It wasn’t working,” she said. “To try to make a difference in people’s lives and to protect the public, the drug court model seemed successful to me — using a lot of court intervention. Why couldn’t it work for the mental health population?
“I think it has.”
To test her ideas, she enlisted the help of Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare, the area’s community services board, the access point for getting publicly funded mental health services.
Talevi credits Blue Ridge with providing the game-changing component. Gail Burruss, its director of adult clinical services, agreed to provide two case managers, part-time, to connect offenders with mental health services, monitor their participation and report regularly to the judge.
In a separate interview, Burruss said the collaboration grew out of a push Virginia started several years ago to encourage the criminal justice and mental health systems to work together to address the needs of mentally ill people who break the law — and, not incidentally, better protect public safety.
“Judge Talevi said she was committed to trying to do something,” Burruss recalled. “I told her, ‘If you will figure out things from the judicial end, I will take care of the case management end.’ ” So, “I just did it.”
Thus far, she said, resources have not been an issue because the time it takes to go to court is well-spent. “I hear from case managers that because clients involved in the therapeutic docket are more responsive and committed, it really doesn’t take more time.”
It’s easier to maintain a course of treatment when clients have an obligation to the court, and know there will be consequences if they don’t meet it.
The docket is maybe 18 months old in Roanoke County and Salem, the judge figured — too young to track long-term results. But early successes are promising.
“Including today,” Talevi said — a day she dismissed charges against three participants who had successfully completed the program — “probably 10 people have graduated total.”
At any one time, she said “there might be 20 to 22 people in the program in the county, and maybe 10 out of Salem.” Roanoke General District Court added a therapeutic docket only this month.
“I do not permit them to use drugs,” Talevi said. If they do, they face sanctions all the way up to removal from the program.
“Removal doesn’t happen often. . . . I’ve had people tell me the program is too intense. They don’t want to stop using marijuana, or meth. Then they receive the sentence to serve on the original crime.”
Talevi brings defendants back before her every two weeks till she’s satisfied they’re making progress, then lengthens the intervals to four weeks. “We need to hold them accountable. Frequent contact with the court is that stick.”
Case manager Kelly Kiser is “the point person for Blue Ridge to provide information back to me — whether they’re participating in the programs and their level of participation.”
Jo Ann Durham, from Court Community Corrections, “provides the probation component.” She gives urine and breath tests, looking for evidence of drug use. “She will talk to them about not participating in criminal activity — being with old friends who are smoking pot.
“They don’t often think the way you and I do,” the judge said. “We’re not going to do something because it’s illegal. They think: ‘I’m not going to get caught.’ They need to be reminded there are other factors to consider, a punitive aspect to their equation.”
Buy-in from local prosecutors was a third essential piece to make the program possible. “It is able to come about through the consent of commonwealth’s attorneys’ offices in various jurisdictions,” Talevi said. “The commonwealth’s attorneys’ offices in Roanoke County and Salem were onboard immediately.”
“When people have mental health issues, the criminal court system is not particularly able to handle them,” county Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Leach noted in a phone interview. Often, they have not been properly diagnosed, or they haven’t been taking their medications.
“It’s better to treat the cause of the behavior. They get punished, too. But jails and penitentiaries aren’t particularly suited to handling their issues.
“If it keeps crime from happening again, I’m all for it.”
In Roanoke, Commonwealth’s Attorney Donald Caldwell approached the idea more cautiously. He was an early and remains a strong supporter of alternative sentencing. Roanoke was the first locality in the state to have a drug court, he pointed out in a phone interview.
But, he said, he is also a strong advocate of holding people responsible for breaking the law if that can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The mercy of the court should be seen in the sentencing,” he said. “If you’re guilty, you should be convicted. It should go on your record. In the county, they’re dismissing some cases.
“There’s great potential for it to be successful here because we do have many people who come into our court system that have mental health issues that don’t rise to the level of insanity. It’s not that they’re not responsible for their activities.
“And frankly, we have a number of people who are bad enough, really, that they can’t be helped by the program. Court Community Corrections is not equipped to handle their issues.
“Many of the harder cases, they’re still in that big crack. The mental health system is not able to address all the needs. And the criminal justice system doesn’t have a way to take care of that.”
The therapeutic docket, he said, is “a small step to try to work with that part of the population that can be helped.”
True. But a small step that can make a huge difference in many lives, as Talevi knows.
Last month, when she called Mary to the bench, it was the first of the day’s three “graduations,” and perhaps the most moving for being the least likely.
Later, the judge explained that when Mary was referred to the therapeutic docket, “She did not believe she was an appropriate candidate for the program. She was going to handle things herself. When she began, it was clear she was not.
“I issued a warrant for her, and she went to jail. She stayed there for several days, then I brought her to see me, and I asked her if she was ready to handle things as an adult. And she said yes.
“She had no place to live, had lost custody of her children and had no job. In three months, she had a job, a place to live and was participating in her program. She had stopped her drug use, had terminated friendships with old friends and started caring about her physical appearance.
“She won back custody of her children, and won the respect of her parents. . . .
“It takes time for a person to divorce themselves from a dysfunctional lifestyle, and to build trust with people working with you to help. And to show true change in attitude, demeanor and lifestyle. And she did all those things.”
One by one, Talevi gave each of the women who graduated that day three tokens of their success: a certificate of completion, a rose and a book, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.”
“It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, to see people grow from a very dark place to graduating from this program,” Talevi commented later. “They’ve grown in confidence, knowing even though they have a mental health issue, they are making a valuable contribution to our community.”
Strother is on the editorial board of The Roanoke Times.
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