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Legislation Would Shift Mental Health Treatment Away From Virginia Jails

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More than 6,300 people with mental illness are locked up in Virginia jails, and a new report from the inspector general says they're not getting the care required by law. Sheriffs are now demanding more money to provide mental health services.

Virginia jails are the largest provider of mental health services in the state according to John Jones, Executive Director of the Virginia Sheriffs' Association, but too often care consists of locking people in solitary confinement or putting them on suicide watch.

"We have some people in jail with mental illnesses who have committed serious crimes and need to be in jail, to question about that," Jones says. "But we also have a lot of people in jail that are there because there are no beds anywhere else. These people are in jail because they're sick."

Jones says attacks on deputies can often be traced to mental illness and a lack of medication for prisoners. That, he says, is why violent inmates must be separated from the general population.

"I'm not a mental health professional, but I cannot imagine that solitary confinement in a jail is therapeutic way to treat a mentally ill person," Jones says.

State Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) has introduced a bill to shift dollars for jail construction to building new mental healthcare facilities.

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