After 15 years of failed efforts, Arlington is close to starting a specialized court program to address mental illness in the criminal justice system. But advocates say they were shut out of a plan that is now moving too quickly and would help too few people.

“This is an issue of national importance,” said Naomi Verdugo, an advocate who helped organize a forum Thursday night to solicit comments on a plan expected to be sent to the Virginia Supreme Court for approval this fall. Most people in the criminal justice system, she noted, start in local jails.

Verdugo, a leader with the Arlington Mental Health and Disability Alliance, and others said they were caught off guard in June, when they learned the county was close to finalizing plans for a docket that would divert some mentally ill offenders out of the regular court system.

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“There has been no community outreach or transparency,” they wrote in a June letter to the county board. A public meeting was held in July, but mental-health advocates said they got little feedback from county leaders.

“It felt like they didn’t want to hear from the community,” said Juliet Hiznay, a lawyer who represents students with learning disabilities. “Fifteen years and then shove it out of the door?”

Two-thirds of the people in the Arlington County jail at any given time have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness or developmental disability, according to county statistics, and half have been prescribed psychotropic medications.

Communities nationwide are grappling with the prevalence of mental illness in jails and prisons, prompting efforts that emphasize treatment as an alternative to incarceration. Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos was defeated in a primary earlier this year by a liberal challenger advocating for a mental-health docket.

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Such discussions in the county have been stalled for years, Arlington Public Defender Brad Haywood said, by “ideological differences” over who should be in the program and how it should work.

The effort is being spearheaded by Judge R. Frances O’Brien of the Arlington General District Court, who would run the docket in coordination with attorneys and county staffers. To avoid the possibility of a jail sentence, participants would have to commit to a treatment plan and to regular court and clinical appearances; they would have to remain drug and alcohol free, take prescribed medication and avoid new charges. Defendants could be referred by counsel or state employees involved in the docket.

O’Brien did not immediately return a request for comment, but she said in an earlier public hearing that she thought it was imperative to get a program in place, according to the news site ArlNow.

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The proposed plan would apply only to Arlington adults diagnosed with a serious mental illness or combined disorders who agree to plead guilty to a misdemeanor crime. Letting in people with a history of violent or sexual offenses, or with an intellectual or developmental disability, would be allowed on a case-by-case basis.

It’s “extremely narrow,” said Hiznay. “Having a more open and flexible viewpoint is going to be a much better approach.”

Fairfax County recently launched a mental-health docket, which Public Defender Dawn Butorac told the crowd was “much more inclusive than Arlington’s proposal.”

In Fairfax, the eligibility criteria are broader, and defendants do not have to plead guilty to a crime to participate. If they fail out of the one- to two-year program they “go back to square one,” as if they were just charged, Butorac said.

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People who complete the Arlington program successfully could have their records expunged, but a plea could still have immigration consequences.

Stamos said she was open to a program that allowed people in before a guilty plea “on a case-by-case basis.” But, she said, “should things go awry … there has to be the ability to maintain a viable prosecution.”

Down the line, it might be more difficult to get a victim or a witness to testify, she said.

Anita Friedman, the head of Arlington’s Department of Human Services, said she appreciated the feedback. “We don’t want people who have mental illness to be incarcerated,” she said; the question is how to get there.

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