Hopeful Step: Woman Diverted From Jail Into Treatment In Fairfax


It didn’t make headlines, but a recent incident shows that positive steps are underway in Fairfax County, Virginia, to divert prisoners with mental illnesses away from the criminal justice system into community care and treatment.

A woman with mental problems was recently arrested for a minor crime and sent to a Virginia state hospital after a judge decided that she was too sick to be put on trial. When she was deemed mentally competent, she was delivered back to the Fairfax Detention Center to await a court appearance.

In the past, this defendant probably would have been found guilty, served time in jail and been released in considerably worse mental shape than when she was arrested. That’s pretty much what happens, not only where I live, but nationally in many  jurisdictions.

Consider the results of a five year study by the University of South Florida’s mental health institute. It’s researchers followed 97 individuals with severe mental illnesses who’d been arrested for petty crimes to see what happened to them. Those 97 individuals were arrested 2,200 times and spent 27,000 days in jail with absolutely no reduction in recidivism or recovery.

Thankfully this revolving door didn’t happen in this woman’s case here in Fairfax.

A mental health worker from the Community Services Board, which is responsible for providing mental health care in Fairfax County, arranged for the woman to receive mental health services while she was still in jail and then developed a release plan for her that included community mental health treatment, supportive housing, and court monitoring. Judge Thomas P. Mann approved her release from the jail.

“It was really a no-brainer,” Judge Mann said later in an email. “The only reason for this lady to be detained would’ve been if she had no support, housing or monitoring in the community. Given that the community services board had everything set up in advance, it all worked perfectly.”

According to Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid, nearly half of all prisoners being held in the Fairfax detention center have a diagnosable mental illness. On any given day, 500,000 people with mental illnesses are incarcerated in jails and prisons across the United States, and 850,000 people with mental illnesses are on probation or parole in the community. Not all of the prisoners in the Fairfax jail with mental problems would qualify for release but many would if adequate community care was  available.

Sheriff Kincaid, Judge Mann, Board of Supervisors’ Chair Sharon Bulova, and Supervisor John Cook have been working tirelessly to implement a countywide initiative called Diversion First and their leadership is exactly what has been needed. (Fairfax had a jail diversion program, but it had received limited support in the past. Now diversion is being expanded and made a priority.)

Jail Diversion has proven itself in other jurisdictions. It is a more humane and sensible, tax saving approach to dealing with inmates who have mental disorders. Nationally, persons with mental illnesses remain incarcerated four to eight times longer than those without mental illnesses for the exact same charge and at a cost of up to seven times higher, making their incarceration a financial burden for taxpayers, as well as, a social/health/justice issue.

“This was a multi-disciplinary approach,” Judge Mann explained, “which facilitated the release of a lady who clearly did not belong in the Adult Detention Center.”

The judge’s comments about the importance of collaboration are spot on. Without cooperation between law enforcement, mental health service providers and the judiciary, jail diversion programs are rarely successful. The cooperation of judges and prosecutors is especially crucial.

Even with collaboration, the best diversion programs fail if there is nowhere in a community where mentally ill prisoners can be diverted from jail. Finding housing always is a stumbling block in Fairfax and nationally. The last time I checked, more than 60 persons in state hospitals in Virginia, who were ready to be released, were waiting for appropriate housing. This backlog costs taxpayers much more in wasted dollars than would supportive housing and it bottlenecks the mental health system by taking beds away from people in crisis waiting in jails.

Sheriff Kincaid, Sharon Bulova, John Cook and Judge Mann should be commended.

“It was really a fabulous day in court,” Mann said, referring to the woman who was diverted from the jail. “And I look forward to a time when this type of situation is less the exception and more the rule. I really believe this could happen. I hope to do everything I can to see that it does. When (not if) it does, it will be a great day.”

Another great day will come when Fairfax County offers its citizens with mental illnesses the meaningful services that they need to control their symptoms without the criminal justice system becoming involved.



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.