Fairfax Touts Its Jail Diversion Program: Video Features My Son

(8-5-2106) I am so proud of the progress that Fairfax County, Virginia, where I live, is making in establishing a jail diversion program for individuals whose crimes were clearly prompted by their mental illnesses. I’m also thrilled that my son, Kevin (Mike in my book), is featured in a short, educational video about Diversion First which the country has released on Youtube.

As Kevin candidly discusses when he speaks to mental health groups, there was a six-year period when it appeared as if he were destined for a life spent homeless, in jail, in-and-out of hospitals or a quick death. Today, he is employed by Fairfax County on a jail diversion team as a peer specialist who helps persons with mental disorders manage their lives. Kevin recently enrolled in graduate school to obtain a Masters Degree in Social Work. He lives independently.

His recovery is a success story that shows what can be achieved when someone who has been arrested and, yes, even shot twice with a Taser by the police, receives the  community supports, including temporary supportive housing and job counseling, that he or she needs to manage their illness.

And that is what Diversion First is designed to do.

Since January 1st of this year, Fairfax County has made a determined effort to divert individuals with mental illnesses by having Crisis Intervention Team trained police officers take them to a crisis center (drop off center) rather than to emergency rooms or jail. At the Merrifield crisis center, they are greeted by peers and evaluated by mental health professionals whose goal is to help them rather than sending them to jail. Hopefully, the next phase of Diversion First will focus on greater use of a mental health docket to divert defendants charged with minor crimes into treatment.

I am grateful to Fairfax County Supervisor Chair Sharon Bulova, Supervisor John C. Cook, Sheriff Stacey Kincaid, Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr., CSB Executive Director Tisha Deeghan, and Diversion First leaders, Laura Yager and Gary Ambrose for launching Diversion First.

Back in 2009, I began urging Fairfax County officials to create a mental health court as part of a diversion program. The chief judge at the time refused to meet with me or even discuss the idea. All of that changed in February 2015 when Natasha McKenna, a 37 year-old African American with schizophrenia, died after being repeatedly shot with a taser by deputies while in the Fairfax County detention center. Her death prompted Sheriff Kincaid to lead a delegation to San Antonio, Texas, to study the Bexar County diversion model, considered by many to be the gold standard for diversion. Much to her credit, Sheriff Kincaid returned determined to take steps that would reduce the population of prisoners in her jail with mental illnesses. She found two immediate allies in Chairwoman Bulova and Supervisor Cook.

During my travels to 48 states in these past ten years, I have found that it often takes a tragedy to prompt change. Consider how Crisis Intervention Team training got started in Memphis. It was after a white police officer fatally shot a black resident with mental illness. I found this to be true in Miami when I did research for my book.

Congress is currently considering a handful of bills that promote CIT and diversion programs.

It is my hope that those communities still lacking CIT, mental health dockets, and diversion efforts will take advantage of what others have learned without waiting for tragedy to strike.

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.