What is the purpose of the criminal justice system in Virginia? It is to punish people for crimes or to rehabilitate offenders so that they may play a constructive role in society?
Those questions sit at the heart of every debate over criminal justice reform — or at least they should. Because at the center of police, courts and corrections should be the common goal of helping people become the best versions of themselves and productive members of society.
That may sound a little like touchy-feely, new-agey nonsense. After all, those entities exist to catch, prosecute and imprison criminals in the interest of public safety. And there is no doubt that some offenses require lengthy prison terms and some offenders are beyond rehabilitation.
But when an opportunity exists to transform people’s lives by giving them treatment, support and care rather than time behind bars, it’s in everyone’s interest to pursue it.
That’s happening now in Newport News, where people with serious mental illnesses have an alternative path through the criminal justice system in the form of the Behavioral Health Docket.
As described in a recent Daily Press article, “The program is designed to treat those with an array of mental health illnesses rather than having them languishing untreated in jail. If defendants follow the rules — including passing drug screens, going to therapy, meeting regularly with judges and staying out of further trouble — they can stay out of jails and their charges can be dismissed.”
The docket in Newport News is primarily the work of General District Judge Matthew W. Hoffman, who created it in 2018 when he noticed how many defendants appearing before him were struggling with mental illness.
He researched alternatives and created the docket with an eye toward helping those most in need. Other localities have similar programs, but Newport News boasts the largest behavioral health docket in Virginia, thanks to strong support of the City Council.
“I know that I can be there to help these individuals through a very difficult time and to help them find the coping skills to be positive and successful members of society,” Hoffman said earlier this year.
Individuals charged with most crimes can apply for selection, and others (police officers, magistrates, attorneys) can recommend people for the program, meaning it casts a wide net for those who might benefit.
But it’s not an easy path to walk. It asks a lot of those who enroll and, in turn, the difficulty helps confirm a commitment to personal improvement. Some people drop out, others wash out, but those who emerge are on a better trajectory for their future.
Earlier this month, another 13 people completed the program, which is the largest number to date. And Hoffman notes the docket is a service to taxpayers as well. Newport News councilors this year voted to provide an additional $85,000 atop the $150,000 in annual funding, compared to an estimated cost of $850,000 for incarcerating those who utilize the program.
However, it can be difficult to pin down with certitude the actual cost-benefit in terms of public money. Those who go on to live on the right side of the law, who support themselves through employment and don’t return to the criminal justice system, can make a community stronger and richer in ways that are hard to quantify.
Ultimately, that should the overarching goal of criminal justice and the driving force behind reform efforts. Punish serious offenders, yes. People should pay for their crimes. But getting help to those who want it, who can utilize it and who are better as a result — that should be our purpose.
And we needn’t look far to see how centering those priorities can be successful. The 13 people who graduated from the behavioral health docket in Newport News this month, and their predecessors in recent years, serve as testament.
—Adapted from an editorial
by The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board