By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
In the shuffle of renovations last spring to add more courtrooms to the judicial complex downtown, the Court Services department got bumped a few blocks north to the county administration building on Gay Street – to the chagrin of local attorney Aaron Cook.
“[Now] it’s a pain to take my client there, or tell him how to get there and hope he makes it,” said Cook, who runs a defense practice downtown.
On the other hand, other logistics have improved. More parking at the county building, points out Court Services Director Ann Marie Freeman, is handy for an agency like hers that sees hundreds of clients.
In any case, Rockingham County would like to move Court Services back closer to the courthouse. One possible location is the Denton building, an option that has incited pushback in the community. (The county is also looking at other possible locations.) But what are these Court Services in the first place?
One of the department’s primary functions is pretrial supervision. The program is for criminal defendants deemed low-enough risk to await trial outside of jail but still submit to drug and alcohol screenings and other conditions imposed by a judge or magistrate. According to Freeman, that typically involves 200 to 250 people at any given time.
Then there’s a probation program supervising people found guilty of misdemeanors and, occasionally, nonviolent felonies. Freeman said it typically oversees around 350 people at a time, who may need to meet court-ordered conditions such as community service, counseling, or restitution, and are subject to random drug and alcohol tests. This supervision lasts anywhere between six months and two years. (The local Court Services probation program is separate from the state-run Probation and Parole office on Water Street that supervises most people convicted of felonies.)
Also housed within Court Services is the drug treatment court program. It’s an addiction recovery program that allows nonviolent, repeat offenders who plead guilty to have their sentencing delayed until they complete a rigorous two-year process, possibly having charges dropped as a result. Within the last year, the court celebrated its first two cohort graduations.
Another, smaller diversion program is Litter Control, through which people with a drunk-in-public charge can avoid other consequences by picking up litter on Fridays and Saturdays.
The nonprofit Strength in Peers partners with Court Services to provide peer support for drug court participants, and they do reentry work for formerly incarcerated individuals.
“We see Court Services as a partner. We strive to help our participants under Court Services supervision to successfully complete their requirements,” said Executive Director Nicky Fadley.
Aiding access to mental health services
Court Services is also home to several initiatives designed to keep people out of jail, including a variety of mental health programs under the jurisdiction of Kelly Royston, the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Joint Mental Health Collaboration Program Coordinator. According to a 2017 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 51 percent of state and federal prisoners and 70 percent of jail inmates reported serious psychological distress or had a history of mental health problems.
“I want us as a community to break the stigma of mental illness, and by doing that, I’m trying to engage as many community programs and departments as possible to work together,” Royston said.
The area’s first program of this nature was the Crisis Intervention Team, launched in 2015 with a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The part-time team – made up of a sheriff’s deputy and clinician – travels the county doing mental health check-ups and following up on referrals from other law enforcement officers.
“So if somebody has been calling 911 five or six times, but they don’t show signs [severe] enough to go to the hospital, maybe we need to intervene and get them outpatient services,” Royston explained.
Thanks to a new grant from the Justice Department, a new, full-time Crisis Intervention Team will begin working locally this spring or summer. With the additional help, Royston said the program will be able to offer more case management for people waiting to access mental health services at the Community Services Board. Sometimes, new patients there now wait up to six months to see a doctor and be prescribed medication, Royston said.
“So what we found is that people were falling through the cracks,” Royston said.
Royston particularly hopes to help women who are assessed as “high risk” and “high need,” meaning “somebody who is constantly in the criminal justice system … who has mental illness, and also substance abuse or a co-occurring disorder.” She noted that a sober-living facility, the Oxford House, opened a home for women just this month. The organization has operated a house for men in Harrisonburg since 2018.
Even still, she said, that leaves women in the area with “some resources, but not enough.”
Also planned is an expansion of the Handle With Care program, which began in Harrisonburg in August and will start in the county on Feb. 1. The program establishes communication between first responders and the schools, so that law enforcement or EMTs who encounter a child in a traumatic situation can alert the schools. Rather than convey specific information about the incident, first responders simply provide notice that something has occurred to the child.
“What we’ve found is a lot of kids were acting out in school and nobody knew why, so they’re thinking it’s behavioral, right? Well come to find out, it’s actually what’s happening at home and behind the scenes,” Royston explained. She hopes that with teachers and administrators intervening earlier in such situations, they can avert a crisis from escalating.
Amidst running these and other programs, Royston also convenes monthly meetings with various law enforcement departments to discuss how to help people who are consistently returning to the criminal justice system.
“What I found when I got into this job is that we were all working in our own, individual siloes, and we work with the exact same people, and we weren’t communicating amongst each other,” Royston said. Ultimately, she wants “to make it more comfortable, more accessible to get to services.”
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