Local initiative featured in national conversation on mental health and justice

Screenshot from a May 7 virtual Congressional briefing on mental health services in the criminal justice system. Rockingham County Crisis Intervention Team Coordinator Kelly Royston (top left) was a featured speaker.

By Calvin Pynn, contributor

Kelly Royston, coordinator of Rockingham County’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), represented the area on Friday in a live-streamed Congressional briefing discussing how communities across the country are working to improve mental health services in the criminal justice system.

The conversation was facilitated by the Council of State Government’s Justice Center to showcase localities working with the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program (JMHCP). Congress created the program in 2004 to address increasing rates of incarceration of people with mental illnesses.

JMHCP funds states and counties that initiate collaborations between local criminal justice and mental health systems. The county was awarded an expansion grant of $750,000 in 2019, resulting in the creation of the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Joint Mental Health Collaboration Program – also coordinated by Royston.

A major part of the JMHCP grant was the rollout of a data-collection system to improve law enforcement response to mental health-related calls.

“Data tracking and reporting systems for our security services were woefully insufficient to identify high-risk, high utilizers of the system to ensure that we’re receiving the comprehensive and long-term services that are available in our community,” Royston said during the meeting.

The data-sharing agreement with the area’s behavioral health authority was secured through a partnership with James Madison University political science professors Amanda Teye and Lili Peaslee, who drafted the JMHCP grant proposal. The result is a system that records data such as numbers of mental health referrals, criminal risk indicators, and mental health and substance abuse screenings.

The system was put into effect six months after the grant was awarded, with data entry starting in September 2020.

“We recognize that the new system is not as comprehensive of a solution as some large urban areas have adopted, but we feel it has tremendous potential to support data tracking needs in a rural and suburban context,” Royston said.

Royston also oversees local law enforcement’s CIT training, the Crisis Intervention Team Assessment Center, the Crisis Response Team and the Handle with Care program – which serves children in city and county public schools who have been experienced trauma. During the event, she spoke about the area’s recent diversion program focused on helping women struggling with mental health and substance abuse.

“We felt that the call for gender-specific service for women with mental illness was a pressing concern in Rockingham County and the City of Harrisonburg, and while the area offers a few effective diversion and reentry resources for men, services for women are scarce in this area,” Royston said.

That program focuses on providing specialized services, such as group therapy, to women awaiting sentencing. It was made possible by a partnership with Gemeinschaft Home, which opened a facility in Harrisonburg for women earlier this year. A crisis response recovery team which works closely with women who have completed the program.

“The great thing about that is just knowing we have the support in place for those female offenders that is a phone call away, that can make the biggest difference in someone’s life and recovery,” Royston said.

Royston was one of five speakers on the event’s panel, comprised of local criminal justice officials and members of Congress championing improvements to mental health response from law enforcement. Harrisonburg and Rockingham County were the only Virginia localities represented in the discussion, which also included Karin Sonneman, county attorney for Winona, Minnesota, and Mike Brouwer, criminal justice coordinator for Douglas County in Lawrenceville, Kansas. Both discussed diversion and restorative justice programs in their communities.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) appeared via pre-recorded video, where he announced plans to to re-introduce the SAFE (Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective) Justice Act. It aims to reform the federal corrections system and federal sentencing.

Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minnesota) also spoke via a pre-recorded video about legislation he plans to introduce to expand access to mental health treatment.

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