Efforts to shift public resources from jails to social services have long been advised by the experts in mental health, social services, and even law enforcement. Yet we continue to direct most of our public money to police and jails.

When I first started studying these issues, data was emerging that diversion programs were effective and less costly over time than jail. But just one bad instance creating bad press could derail an entire campaign for diversion. And the up-front costs and individualized approaches have been difficult for advocates to sell to policymakers. No matter that evidence continues to mount that the current punitive system comes at a steep price to the economy, our culture, and our social structure.

Jac Charlier

Then comes a pandemic and an explosion of easy-to-access mental and social services. Tele-health, tele-counseling, tele-advice, or “tele-whatever” as Jac Charlier, executive director of the Police, Treatment, and Community Collaborative (PTACC), calls it.

Over the past few months, doctors, social workers, psychologists and other social service providers have been connecting with clients and patients over the phone, via video conference and through secure electronic portals.

Interactive map of jury trial restrictions throughout the U.S.

These options have also ramped up to benefit diversion programs, diverting individuals from a path to jail to a path of treatment. When before diversion was an option, during the pandemic, it’s been a necessity as courts came to a near standstill in many jurisdictions and severely limited jury trials and other in-person hearings.

Unfortunately, as Charlier notes in The Crime Report, the current tele-whatever options are temporary and, without action, will expire once this public health emergency subsides.

This is why his organization and several others have drafted and are supporting the Telehealth Response for E-prescribing Addiction Therapy Services (TREATS) Act, which would make permanent the ability of health professionals to order necessary drugs and to bill Medicare for telehealth-only services.

There is plenty to complain about and be concerned about with the technologies we’ve been forced to rely on these last few months.

In this LawSites post, Bob Ambrogi details some important cautions regarding due process and privacy during the shift to virtual courts, with a recent Urban Justice Center report noting:

“Remote hearings and trials have not been seamless proceedings, and this nationwide experiment in virtual justice has the potential to cause significant harm to perceived and actual fairness, as well as to individual rights to privacy, in the course of determining best practices.”

I would argue that the overly complex in-person system we have now is already doing harm and has monumental problems when it comes to perceived fairness.

That said, I don’t believe tele-health or virtual courts are a panacea. Rather I see the technology as an important advancement and option that should be more widely available to increase access to our justice systems and to our health systems.