Great News! Fairfax County May Soon Have A Problem Solving Docket!


Exciting news for those of us who live in Fairfax County, Virginia.  After years with little interest, our jurisdiction may be getting a specialty docket to help veterans and persons with mental illnesses who get arrested. Penney S. Azcarate, the chief judge of the general district court here, will hold a steering committee and community awareness meeting on May 22 at 2 p.m. in the fourth floor jury room of the Fairfax County Courthouse to discuss creating a specialty docket. The public is invited and I hope the Northern Virginia Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, as well as, other mental health advocates, veterans organizations and community faith groups attend.

Please help spread the word.

Azcarate, Penny

Judge Azcarate

Judge Azcarate spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps where she reached the rank of captain before leaving to earn a  law degree from George Mason University. Her interest in creating a specialty docket came from her concern about her fellow veterans. As noted before in this blog, one veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes in our country.

During my travels, I’ve seen how other communities have saved tax dollars, reduced their jail populations and helped people with mental illnesses and drug and alcohol addictions recover rather than lanquish by taking three steps. The first is implementing Crisis Intervention Team training for law enforcement, the second is opening a crisis drop off center rather than taking individuals in crisis to a costly emergency room or booking them into jail. The third is creating a specialty docket, sometimes called a veterans or mental health court.

Officials in Bexar County, Texas, paved the way years ago in demonstrating the effectiveness of this three prong approach. That county went from planning to build a new jail to having a 1,000 jail bed surplus and saving $3 million annually.

While Virginia has lagged behind the curve, a number of forward thinking individuals have been making progress.  Victoria Cochran, the former director of the state’s Office of Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice Services, made CIT a priority and played a role in getting the CIT International to host a recent conference in the state.

State Senator Janet D. Howell (D-Reston) and from the other side of the aisle, former Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli  helped legislatively make CIT a success.  They’ve been joined by Republican Delegate Joseph Yost from Radford who has emerged as a leader in championing crisis drop off centers. Delegate Yost will be participating in a workshop at NAMI’s national convention in Washington D.C. during September 3rd to 6th where he will discuss ways to get jail diversion services implemented in local communities.

The idea of boqtique courts has not been widely supported by the conservative state judiciary in Virginia despite educational efforts by Mira Singer, the executive director of NAMI Virginia, and other advocates who have seen how effective they have been in other states. Compared to its neighbor, Arlington County, Fairfax has sputtered when it comes to implementing the CIT, Crisis Center, and Specialty Court prong.

Under Judge Azcarate’s leadership, one of the most powerful Virginia counties may be taking a huge step forward.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.