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Virginia Sheriffs' Institute
Supporting Virginia’s Sheriffs & Deputies

Our view: The revolving cell door

The Roanoke Times
Editorial Board
Posted: March 29, 2014

A Roanoke City Jail program that connects mentally ill inmates to community services is a small step in the right direction toward closing a critical treatment gap.

Virginia’s jails have become de facto mental institutions, housing almost three times more people with serious mental illnesses than state hospitals, according to a report issued last year by the State Inspector General’s Office.

Yet local and regional jails lack resources to provide effective treatment. And community services boards – meant, as their name suggests, to deliver care outside of mental institutions – are “increasingly unlikely to provide treatment” to people who are ill and, often as a result, land in jail.

Why the decline? CSBs are increasingly dependent on Medicaid to pay for services. Under the state’s Medicaid program, people lose their eligibility when they’re in jail. And jails get no state money to bridge the treatment gap that results.

Continuity of care is important, so mental illnesses often grow worse in jail.

A regional mental health and criminal justice task force set a goal in 2009 to find a way to address what has been a worsening problem.

Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare had to cobble together bits and pieces of state CSB funding. But at last, it is able to provide a counselor for some, though not all, mentally ill inmates in the city jail as they near their release dates.

It’s not treatment, but the program can help connect them to the treatment and housing they’ll soon need.

A small step, indeed, toward redressing Virginia’s neglectfulness.