News Article Details

Virginia Beach sheriff looks to build more humane approach to jailing mentally ill people

Virginian-Pilot - 3/5/2019

March 05-- Mar. 5--Virginia Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle secured about $1 million in funding from the legislature last month to better treat the people with mental illness in his jail.

"Treatment of the mentally ill is a huge problem, the largest problem we have in jails today," he said. "It was a long process to get here."

Stolle said in his two decades as a legislator -- before becoming a sheriff -- he thought he understood the issues around jailing people with mental illness.

"Then I came here. I probably didn't understand it nearly as well as I thought I did," he said.

The budget amendment, which Stolle says the governor has promised to sign, will provide:

* An additional 12 positions for mental health workers.

* Screening tools for inmates with mental illness within the first 48 hours of booking into jail.

* Discharge planning to ensure inmates continue to receive medications and have somewhere to go upon release.

* Followup with inmates once they've left to ensure they are making appointments and getting medication.

The plan was put together by the Sheriff's Office and the city's Department of Human Services and has been in the works for about three years.

"What this allows us to do is screen and assess people and make interventions," said Kevin Cuffee, supervisor for Adult Correctional Services in Virginia Beach. "We can go to court and get people diverted into treatment. If we're not able to get them diverted, we can ensure that they're on their medications, make sure they are seen by a psychiatrist and set up plans to help them transition back into the community, which should help prevent them from coming back to jail."

Stolle said he reached out to Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment and Del. Chris Jones, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, for their support. His brother Del. Christopher Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, sponsored the budget amendment. He said he plans to ask for the same funding from the legislature next year to keep the program going.

"Everyone knows there's a mental health problem in jails but the question is what is the solution to this," said Undersheriff Brian Struzzieri. "A key element is ... defining what that inmate population is and then identifying the treatment they need."

Stolle said more work needs to be done. He wants to convert one of his jail buildings to a mental health treatment facility that would take people with mental illness who were arrested for minor crimes and send them into treatment. He said he's also talked to other local sheriffs about the issue and that it may make more sense to create a regional facility, rather than one just for Virginia Beach.

Stolle said he's tough on crime but many people with mental illness aren't really criminals. He's watched as the percentage of inmates with mental illness in his jail, which currently houses about 1,400 people, rose from 16 percent in 2010 to nearly 30 percent today.

"The illness manifests itself in minor crimes and because we don't have the ability to treat the illness, we treat the minor crimes and get people off the street. I think that is less and less accepted in society," he said.

He sees the additional funding as a step in fixing what is really a state-wide problem.

"I think the state has an obligation to provide more funding," Stolle said. "Otherwise we are writing these people off."

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(c)2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

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