Empty jail cellblock hallway with an open door

More than two-thirds of people incarcerated in Arlington County Jail have a serious mental illness or developmental disabilities. Officials have a plan that aims to change that, but mental health advocates are concerned the plan doesn’t do enough. 

The county proposal aims to keep people out of jail by having them attend regular clinical and court appointments and sign up for treatment plans that prohibit drugs and alcohol. 

Naomi Verdugo, a leader with the Arlington Mental Health and Disability Alliance, told the Washington Post that the group welcomes the reform effort, but is disappointed advocates weren’t consulted on the county’s plan. Verdugo also has her own proposal that she views as more inclusive. It will be reviewed by the Virginia Supreme Court this fall.

The existing plan from Arlington applies only to adults diagnosed with a serious mental illness or combined disorders. Defendants with a history of violent and/or sexual offenses, and those with intellectual disabilities, would need to be approved case-by-case.

Dawn Butorac, a public defender in Fairfax County, is a critic of Arlington’s plan, saying it is less inclusive than a similar plan introduced in Fairfax County. In Fairfax, there is no requirement that defendants plead guilty to enter the program, but in Arlington, there is.

Still, despite their differences, both sides agree on one thing: significant steps need to be taken to divert the mentally ill out of the regular court system.