More than 90 percent of people who are in jail will eventually be released, according to the Prince William County Office of Criminal Justice Services, or OCJS. The question is, then what? Thanks in part to the OCJS, providing certain services can help them succeed once they are released. These services range from the time people enter the criminal justice system until they are set to return to the community; and they all play a critical role in doing what's best for the person and the community.
According to Steve Austin, Prince William County's director of OCJS, one such service is a pretrial release program called Diversion Intercepts for Varied Emergency Responses and Treatment, or DIVERT. This program involves a team that includes judges, the Commonwealth Attorney's office, the defense attorney, treatment professionals and pretrial probation officers that helps people with serious mental illness stay out of jail as they await trial.
"We get them assessed by a mental health professional through Community Services. If they are eligible, they are then diverted from the jail after their arrest and they get treatment pending trial. We like to divert them as soon as possible. It's a rapid process that assesses people quickly and gets them diverted from the jail as quickly as possible. It's not good for people with mental illness to be in jail for a long period of time if they don't have to be," Austin said.
Releasing people who are deemed eligible for pretrial release keeps them at home with a support system where they might function better, Austin said. "It helps keep people in the community where they can contribute. They can keep their jobs, support their families, and the community is not responsible for paying for their medical care at the jail. When they're in jail, the burden for mental health care is on the state and the local taxpayers because that's how that gets funded."
Austin points out that the DIVERT program doesn't get people off the hook for their crimes. "They still have to deal with their pending charges. DIVERT doesn't make that go away. There's still accountability for their criminal actions, but it's dealt with through the lens that they have a mental illness."
People in the DIVERT program, who are supervised by pretrial officers, must also appear before the judge on a monthly basis to monitor their progress.
There are also programs for those who are in jail to help them prepare for success when they are released. The idea is to help them get prepared for the barriers they will meet upon parole or probation, Austin said. "Once somebody gets released from the jail, they're back in the mix of their lives, which is job seeking, child care, bill paying – things they're not really focused on when they're in custody. They're faced with all of the pressures of picking up responsibilities, and it's hard to stay focused on doing what they need to do to be successful because a lot of times they're focused on daily living."
Another program to help those in jail prepare for release is the DORM program. DORM helps eligible inmates, who are within six months of release, learn those life skills they will need to succeed in society. Regular reentry fairs held at the Prince William-Manassas Adult Detention Center bring together potential employers, faith-based organizations and Community Services to help with programs and services that might help inmates hurdle some of the barriers. Representatives from the Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles also attend the reentry fairs to help inmates get identification before they are released.
According to Austin these programs are working. Looking at evidence-based measures, the evaluations show that the programs are successful. "We've seen a reduction in recidivism. In 2010, it was around 29.8 percent. Now, the last recidivism study, which was last year, we're down to 22 percent, which is really good. We've made substantial strides."
According to the OCJS' 2017 Annual Report, the average pretrial daily case load increased from 352 in 2015 to 507 in 2017, saving the jail 56,894 jail bed days. And the successful compliance rates increased from 84 percent in 2015 to 89 percent in 2017.
The programs make sense, Austin said. "Most believe that people deserve a second chance, but even if you don't believe that, the fiscal side of it is that is that it makes good sense to do everything you can to help people be successful."
For more information about OCJS' programs, visit pwcgov.org/ocjs.