Mental health screening and assessment bills fail to advance

February 22, 2017

Legislation intended to standardize the mental health screening and assessment process for inmates in local and regional jails has been tabled. However, the issue may be addressed in the budget conference report.

HB 1783 (Bell, R.B.) and SB 940 (Cosgrove)/SB 1442 (Deeds), as passed by the Senate, would have required all inmates to be screened for mental illness upon admission to the local jail, using a scientifically validated instrument that would be designated for use by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. Inmates who appeared to have a mental illness would then be assessed by a qualified mental health professional within 72 hours of the initial screening. The Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the 21st Century had examined this issue during 2016 and expressed an interest in increasing uniformity in the screening process; the subcommittee learned that most jails are screening inmates for signs of mental illness, but there is no single screening tool used in all jails.

The Governor’s introduced budget contained $4.2 million to fund implementation of these bills ($4 million for grants to localities and $200,000 for the state Department of Criminal Justice Services to train local and regional jail employees on the use of a standardized screening instrument), but both the House and Senate budget proposals redirected this funding.

In the expectation that the budgets to be reported on February 5 would not contain funding for this initiative, HB 1783 was tabled by House Appropriations shortly before crossover. SB 940 and SB 1442 were heard on February 16 in the House Appropriations Public Safety Subcommittee. VACo was asked to speak to the local impact of the bills and indicated general support for the goals of the legislation, but some concern about local jails’ ability to comply with the bills’ requirements, particularly the 72-hour deadline for mental health assessments, in the absence of additional funding. The bills were tabled, but subcommittee members expressed interest in continuing to work on the issue, and the possibility remains that some funding could be reinstated in the budget conference report.

Regardless of the outcome in this year’s budget, this issue can be expected to be a continued topic of discussion in the Joint Subcommittee, particularly in the context of a potential restructuring of local Community Services Boards’ responsibilities. Local CSBs provide mental health assessments in a number of local jails.

VACo Contact: Katie Boyle

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