Crisis team does good work

Published 10:34 pm Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A variety of high-profile and tragic cases in recent years have highlighted the intersection of mental illness and law enforcement. The problem has been exacerbated through the years by on-again, off-again efforts by government at various levels to close state mental hospitals or limit the number of patients they house.

A 2006 special report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics demonstrates how widespread the problem really is. It was estimated at the time that 705,600 mentally ill adults were incarcerated in state prisons, 78,800 in federal prisons and 479,900 in local jails.

The growing number of mentally ill offenders has strained correctional systems, according to the National Institute for Corrections, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. Even before mentally ill offenders find themselves caught up in the prison system, though, they first find themselves in contact with law enforcement officers.


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A desire to improve the outcomes of those potentially dangerous situations is part of what has driven the Western Tidewater Community Services Board to work with law enforcement officers, the courts, detention officers and mental health officials to plan and build a special Crisis Intervention Team whose members are trained to work with the mentally ill.

The ultimate goal of the program is to help the mentally ill to get early identification of their conditions and then to find consistent and helpful treatment for them. If those interventions can come early enough, officials say, patients could be steered away from situations that result in negative contact with law enforcement. Avoiding those interactions would keep many people out of jail whose biggest problem is simply a brain disorder.

“I think we’re going to make huge strides diverting people from the criminal justice system as a result of this effort,” Suffolk Police Department Maj. Stephanie Burch said during a recent meeting of the community services board.

That’s a goal the entire community can get behind.