WEYERS CAVE — Although they vary on other issues, several House of Delegates candidates found some common ground on criminal justice reform.
Eight candidates — four Republicans, three Democrats and one libertarian — vying for four Valley seats in next month’s election met for a forum at Blue Ridge Community College on Thursday.
Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, was joined by Democratic challenger Brent Finnegan, a Harrisonburg media producer. Also attending were Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, and Democratic opponent Angela Lynn of Albemarle County, and Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, and his challengers, Democrat Michele Edwards and libertarian Will Hammer.
Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, also attended, but his opponent, independent John Winfrey, was absent.
About 70 people attended the forum, which concluded the two-day Community Criminal Justice Days symposium on reform efforts. Kris Losh, a former WKDW radio host, asked questions on the opioid epidemic, mental health treatment, diversion from incarceration and medical marijuana.
Bell and Finnegan said police should have other options when encountering those with mental illness than arresting them.
“That is oftentimes the first line of contact for people who end up in the criminal justice system,” Finnegan said. “[We need] better opportunities for officers to refer ... and bypass the court if that person is not a danger to themselves or others.”
Bell said the state needs to invest in mental health crisis training for first responders.
“A lot of times when these people have their first encounter with law enforcement, it’s in a very heated situation,” he said. “The emotional pitch is very high, and a lot of law enforcement people aren’t trained adequately to recognize mental health conditions.”
Landes and Wilt discussed legislation that was passed in 2017 to test same-day access at community services boards across the state, with a goal of providing the service in all of the state’s 40 CSB regions by 2019. The General Assembly set aside $4.9 million for the program this year.
Same-day access allows people to receive an assessment without an appointment, rather than coming to a CSB and scheduling an assessment. Based on the assessment, someone can be scheduled for treatment within 10 days.
“That’s a very positive step forward,” Wilt said. “We’re working diligently.”
The Harrisonburg-Rockingham CSB and the Valley CSB in Staunton were two of 18 agencies in the state to receive funding for the pilot program.
Lynn said jails are being used for “warehousing” people with mental illness. Lynn and Finnegan said more treatment could be available if the state expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Medicaid is a jointly run state and federal program that provides health care mostly to low-income Americans.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly has blocked Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s attempts to expand the system, citing concerns that the cost would rise dramatically, leaving the state footing the bill.
“As the federal government deals with their issues and balancing their budget and has no money in the future, then the state becomes responsible for those recipients,” Landes said. “And I don’t think we would take them off the rolls, which would mean the commonwealth of Virginia would be on the hook for more.”
Hammer said people with mental illness should have more access to medical marijuana. He said studies are showing the positive effects of several now-banned drugs, such as LSD, MDMA and hallucinogenic mushrooms, and the state should research how they can be used to treat mental illnesses.
The candidates also discussed ways to combat the opioid epidemic, such as increasing regulations on doctors and legalizing marijuana.
Edwards and Cline said patients must receive more information on the addictive nature of the drugs they are prescribed. Edwards said children should be aware of the dangers of opioids that they could find in their home.
Most of the candidates said emphasis should be placed on alternative medicines and treatments, such as less addictive substances. Hammer said an alternative would be medical marijuana.
Landes, Cline and Wilt said the General Assembly is taking steps to address the epidemic and has passed measures to restrict the amount of opioids that doctors can prescribe.
“Unfortunately, some of these things take time,” Wilt said. “We’re not going to give up. We’re going to continue to press in and try to address this critical matter.”
However, Finnegan and Bell said the problem is bigger than overprescribing. Bell said about half of the drugs are available on the streets.
“It is not the prescription drug that they’re overdosing on; it’s the street drug,” Finnegan said. “We need to keep that in mind.”
Any measures taken should focus on treatment, not law enforcement, Finnegan said.
Bell said the epidemic is a “cultural” and “societal” problem. He said some action must come from law enforcement to get synthetic drugs off the street.
“That’s just the true reality of it,” he said.