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In one Virginia courtroom, a judge tries to stop a revolving door

A Prince George’s County emergency response officer in Upper Marlboro, Md., on Jan. 28, 2016.
A Prince George’s County emergency response officer in Upper Marlboro, Md., on Jan. 28, 2016. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
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On good days, he’s charming, genteel and hard-working. The polite guy who always holds the door for people.

But the problems piling up on the bad days — speeding tickets, failures to show in court, fix-it tickets, unpaid fines, anger and depression — baffled everyone around the smart 23-year-old business owner from Virginia.

For years, his mom tried therapists and counseling to help her smart and troubled son find his balance. Imprisonment, rather than treatment, was where he kept ending up.

And in July 2019, the thing she feared most happened.

After landing in jail again — this time for a 10-day jag for speeding — the young man broke free from his section of a Northern Virginia detention facility, ran up the stairs to a higher level overlooking an atrium and jumped. It was the second time he tried to kill himself.

“I woke up in the hospital, and I just wanted it to all go away,” said the young man, who agreed to talk about his mental illness on the condition of anonymity because mental illness is stigmatized. “But I survived. And I saw the aftermath. And I had help this time.”

Instead of going back to jail, he left the hospital and became one of the first people to join Fairfax County’s new Mental Health Docket, a way to stop the revolving door that cycles too many people with mental illness in and out of the legal system by getting them into treatment programs and making sure they can finish them.

The devastating toll of untreated mental illness needs our attention

More than 2 million times every year, a person with a mental illness lands in jail for a minor infraction related to that illness — noise complaints, public urination, failure to comply with an order.

Across the United States, about 26 percent of the people in local jails have some kind of serious mental health condition. In federal and state facilities, it’s about 14 percent, according to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Our prisons and jails have become our mental institutions.

“During the 1960s, the federal government decided to close most of the nation’s mental health hospitals and use the funding to develop community supports for people with mental illness,” Gary A. Ambrose, a retired Air Force brigadier general who now works as an advocate for people with mental health issues, said during a small ceremony in Fairfax this month honoring the Mental Health Docket.

“Unfortunately, the funding for treatment programs and community supports never fully materialized,” Ambrose said. “As a result, we gradually criminalized mental health issues, and America’s jails and prisons were filled with people who needed treatment and support.”

For decades, judges and police didn’t want to play the role of social workers. They stuck to law and order. That approach packed the jails, cost the taxpayers millions and didn’t treat anybody.

Ambrose knows this well. His son, Bradley Ambrose, “cycled through health care and legal systems” for many of the 17 years after he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in the late 1990s.

“He was always worse for wear after being in the legal system,” his father said.

Like the young man I met in Virginia, Ambrose’s son was “intelligent, articulate, well-read, and charismatic,” Ambrose said in a 2016 speech after receiving an advocacy award. “During ‘good times,’ when he was medication compliant, he was a pleasant companion.”

But the bad times were many, and they were often spent behind bars. In 2014, Bradley Ambrose killed himself.

Around that time, there were 10 times as many people with mental illness living in prisons and jails than in any of the remaining state mental hospitals, Ambrose said.

So the next year, he began working with others in Virginia to change that and eventually helped with the creation of the Mental Health Docket.

That same year, 2015, Natasha McKenna, a 37-year-old African American mother with schizophrenia, died at the Fairfax County jail after struggling with deputies. Her family settled a wrongful-death lawsuit with the county, and the Black Lives Matter movement began saying her name, identifying her as one of many African American victims of systemic racism within a justice system that was also overwhelmed and unprepared for thousands of people with mental illness.

Don’t defund the police. Reimagine the police.

These are the kinds of reform the “defund the police” movement is talking about, conversations that got more traction this summer with hundreds of protests around the nation following the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. It’s not about getting rid of police. It’s about reimagining the way the justice system does its job.

After McKenna’s death, Fairfax County joined dozens of other counties in the Stepping Up Initiative, a nationwide effort to reduce the incarceration rates of people with mental illness, and Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid began training deputies in crisis intervention techniques.

The overhaul finally reached the courts this year, when the Virginia Supreme Court authorized nine mental health dockets, including this one in Fairfax County.

It’s modeled loosely on the county’s Veterans Treatment Docket, which has been run for the past couple of years by Judge Penney Azcarate. A military veteran herself, Azcarate kept seeing veterans struggling with PTSD and other issues before her in court, on first-time charges. She was troubled by that, recognized their mental illness and knew there were better answers for them than jail time.

A troubled Marine goes to veteran’s court

Judge Tina Snee is running the Mental Health Docket, and she has been seeing the folks for a year now — making sure they are taking their medications, complying with their treatment programs and staying out of trouble. If they follow the course she sets for them, they will graduate from the program.

The young man who jumped while he was in the county jail was one of her first graduates.

When he first showed up before Snee, he had more than 30 charges against him in one court alone. Now, he’s back at work running his small business and has been out of trouble for months, thanks to the treatment program that the judge ordered him into.

His mom joined him for a small graduation ceremony before the judge this month.

“We’ve been fighting these battles for years. Everyone just assumed he was a bad kid,” she said, turning to him. “It was so hard to see you self-destruct.”

He told her that standing in front of the judge and being given a chance to treat his issues has changed him.

“And, Mom, you didn’t give up on me,” he told her.

They high-fived and left — not by the revolving door, but by one he held open for her.

Twitter: @petulad

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