Legislation to enhance mental health care in jails advances

January 29, 2019

Several bills have been introduced to direct the development of standards for the provision of care in jails, a topic of considerable interest during recently General Assembly sessions and among several study groups last year.  Several high-profile cases, notably the death of a mentally ill man in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in 2015, have spurred legislators to press for action in this area.

During the 2018 legislative session, bills were considered that would have required Community Services Boards (CSBs) to provide behavioral health care and substance abuse services in local and regional jails.  VACo expressed serious concerns about these bills, which did not address how these services would be funded or how they would fit within the array of services to be offered by all CSBs (STEP-VA) that was established by the General Assembly in 2017 and is currently being phased in over several years.  The 2018 legislation failed, but the issue of improving care in jails was examined over the summer and fall by the Joint Commission on Health Care and the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the Commonwealth in the 21st Century.  Legislators on both study commissions endorsed the establishment of standards of care in local and regional jails, to include behavioral health care, without specifying who would be required to provide the services.

HB 1918 (Stolle) and SB 1598 (Dunnavant) direct the Board of Corrections to establish minimum standards for health care, including mental health care, in local and regional jails, and require jails to report on the delivery of services quarterly.  Under the bills, the Board of Corrections may allow jails to meet these standards by virtue of their accreditation by the American Correctional Association or the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, but those jails will still be required to submit quarterly reports.  HB 1942 (Bell, R.B.) requires the Board of Corrections to develop standards for the provision of behavioral health services in local and regional jails, to include standards for discharge planning for inmates with serious mental illness.

VACo has had productive conversations with the three patrons of these bills about the need for more state support for jail operations, and HB 1942 was amended in subcommittee to add language providing that the Board of Corrections would convene a workgroup of stakeholders to determine the costs of implementing the new standards.  This workgroup will provide a venue to have further discussions about resources necessary to enhance care in jails.

HB 1918 and HB 1942 were reported from the House Health, Welfare, and Institutions Committee on January 29; SB 1598 was reported from Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee and is now before the Senate Finance Committee.

VACo Contact: Katie Boyle

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