CHRISTIANSBURG — The Montgomery County Behavioral Health Record, a special program for a small group of defendants with mental health issues, marked its first graduation Thursday with cupcakes, congratulatory banners and the dismissal of charges criminals.
“You can go out there and be successful,” Commonwealth barrister Mary Pettitt told the two graduates who attended the ceremony, which was held in a courtroom at the District General. Two other people graduated but did not come to the ceremony, Pettitt said.
Launched last year, the Behavioral Health Docket targets a carefully selected set of people who have been charged with crimes and have mental health issues severe enough to disrupt their lives but not so severe that they are legally considered not responsible. of their actions. . In a process similar to that used by drug courts in Montgomery County and elsewhere, defendants at the Behavioral Health Docket meet twice a month with a judge and a panel including treatment providers. Together, they look at the issues the defendants face and how they deal with them, whether it’s health care, housing, employment or other issues.
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The purpose of the scrutiny is “to get them out of the situation that put them on trial 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 that include fewer criminal charges, emergency room visits, and detention orders; reduced financial costs for the community; and improving the lives of defendants.
It should take about a year or so to bring defendants to the point of graduation, when they are deemed ready to gain more independence. Some defendants still face conviction but have their prison terms suspended if they participate in the program, others have their charges dismissed if they pass the program, Pettitt wrote.
On Thursday, Williams told graduates he had dismissed their charges earlier in the day.
Both graduates thanked the program organizers and said participating in the Behavioral Health Record was life-changing.
“It was a growing experience. I don’t think I would have gone to school without it,” said Austin Jaret Duncan of Christiansburg, who was fired on counts of battery and attempted battery.
Duncan said he had been in an online program for a year to get a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He said he hopes to transfer to a university in person and eventually work in psychology or neuroscience.
Williams told Duncan, “We’re proud of you” and asked him what his grades were.
“Always A,” Duncan said.
Williams laughed. “I can’t say it’s ever happened to me,” he said.
Among those cheering on the graduates were Circuit Court Judge Robert Turk, who oversees the county’s drug court, Montgomery County Supervisor Sherri Blevins and County Administrator Craig Meadows.
The Montgomery County Behavioral Health Record is the first of its kind in the New River Valley. Williams said he hopes it eventually expands to other courts in the 27th Judicial District.
Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem have long had a similar program called Therapeutic Record.
In his written summary, Pettitt said the Montgomery County program so far has about 25 people referred by defense attorneys, the court or probation officers. Pettitt said she reviews charges and criminal history, seeks input from victims and law enforcement, and refers applicants to New River Valley Community Services to determine if the behavioral health record might help.
Community Services “has been great at getting the person into needed services even before they officially enter the program,” Pettitt wrote.
Thursday’s second graduate asked not to be identified in the newspaper, but credited the program with connecting her to the help she had been seeking for years.
Of the 25 applicants, 14 were approved for the program, Pettitt wrote. Four people left the program before completing it — two filed new criminal charges, one asked to leave and one “went MIA,” Pettitt wrote.
Speaking to graduates on Thursday, Pettitt said the new curriculum was a welcome contrast to much of his work.
“I work on the criminal side of things. I would be happy not to have customers,” Pettitt said. “…If I can get people out of the criminal justice system and back into being productive members of society, that makes me really happy.”
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