Fairfax County’s Diversion First Program Cites Major Successes, Further Pinpoints Need For Supportive Housing

Photo: Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid awards highest sheriff’s honor to CIT Lt. Redic Morris for his heroic service to individuals with mental illnesses/addictions.

(1-31-18)  What can be accomplished in two years when law enforcement, court officials, mental health providers, community leaders and mental health advocates work together to stop the inappropriate incarceration of persons with mental illnesses and addictions?

Nothing short of a miracle here in Fairfax County, Virginia, where I live.

The county issued a report this week about its Diversion First program and the results were so impressive that representatives from several national organizations attended a public meeting to learn about the county’s accomplishments.*

For more than a decade, I was critical and frustrated by a lack of interest in Fairfax in jail diversion, but after the tragic death of Natasha McKenna in 2015 in our jail, Fairfax Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid made diversion a priority, recruited allies and doggedly pushed the county forward. The result: a series of impressive changes.

Let’s begin with Crisis Intervention Team training, a crucial step in the jail diversion/sequential intercept model.

After my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, was published in 2006, Patti and I donated $500 per year to our local NAMI chapter to fund an award to be given to a CIT Officer of the Year. We felt it important to encourage CIT. But we stopped in 2010 after budget cuts in 2008 virtually eliminated what scant CIT training was being done.

No longer.

Thanks to Fairfax Chief of Police Col. Edwin C. Roessler Jr., CIT training for police has become a priority, just as it has inside the jail because of Sheriff Kincaid. Their CIT and Diversion First efforts have been supported politically and financially by Board of Supervisor Chair Sharon Bulova, Supervisor John C. Cook, and Deputy County Executive David Rohrer.


In addition to a robust CIT turn-around, Fairfax has opened the Merrifield Crisis Response Center where police can take someone for evaluation and treatment rather than incarceration. It has 23-hour calming rooms manned by peer specialists, along with mental health professionals.

CIT trained officers provide security and Lt. Redic Morris, who is the Sheriff Department’s CIT Coordinator at the Merrifield Center, described during the Diversion First meeting how deputies and police officers are now collaborating to help people receive treatment rather than jailing them.

“This job is one of the hardest I’ve had, but it’s very rewarding,” Lt. Morris said.

Sheriff Kincaid gave Morris her department’s Distinguished Service Award, its highest honor. Fairfax Police Lt. Mike Tucker, who is the CIT coordinator at Merrifield, also was recognized. After listening to them, it became clear to me how passionately they feel about CIT and helping our loved ones. This is representative of a positive attitudinal shift in our community.

In Virginia, mental health services are provided by Community Services Boards and our CSB has stepped forward. Under the leadership of Tisha Deegan and Daryl Washington, the CSB has assigned a number of employees to assist prisoners in jail with mental health and addiction problems. Consequently, 83% of arrestees in jail with mental illness/addictions received treatment services during 2017.

83%  Yes, I’d like that to be a 100% but given from where the community has been, this is an incredible leap forward.

   In addition to meaningful changes in the police and sheriff’s departments, progressive judges and court officials have created a veterans and drug docket.

There’s better jail screening, faster appointments with public defenders who have mental health training, and specialized training for court services staff so they can identify cases that involve mental illness/co-occurring problems and alert judges and prosecutors. Thank you judges!

For the first time in recent memory, our county is keeping metrics so it can determine strengths and weaknesses.

Chloe Lee, PhD., conducted a 2016 longitudinal outcome evaluation that tracked 125 so-called “super utilizers” who are stuck cycling through our jail. All had been diagnosed with serious mental illnesses. Her study found that most of these individuals were white males between the ages of 17 to 29. The most common diagnosis was bipolar disorder (34%) schizoaffective disorder (22%), major depression (17%) and schizophrenia (12%).

The biggest risk factors for them being arrested and re-arrested were:

  1. Homelessness
  2. Alcohol abuse.
  3. Previous jail incarceration history (re-arrested in the past three years.)

Dr. Lee’s findings shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been involved in jail diversion. But her metrics will be crucial in justifying future funding and fine-tuning programs.

Housing remains a major problem in Fairfax.

During a recent fund raising walk to raise much needed money for Pathway Homes, Supervisor Cook, who chairs the county’s Public Safety Committee, pointed out that  1,059 homeless residents were counted here by volunteers. You need an annual income of $58,320 to afford a two-bedroom fair market rental here. There is a five-year waiting list to qualify for supportive housing and estimates are that the county needs some 40,000 supportive units to bring that number down.

It is impossible for communities to successfully implement jail diversion programs without also addressing housing needs.

Diversion First would not be successful without its director, Laura Yager and, its public chair, retired Air Force brigadier general Gary Ambrose, who lost his son to mental illness. Along with Supervisor Cook, they have relentlessly touted the cost savings associated with jail diversion. One in three jail inmates in Fairfax have a diagnosable behavioral health issue. Those inmates stay 20 days longer than other inmates and more than half will be re-arrested in three years. It can cost as much as $72,000 annually to keep an individual with a serious mental illness in our local detention center. Treating that same individual in a state hospital cost $22,500 annually. Providing them with treatment services in our community costs $7,500 and allows them to live in a neighborhood with friends and family.

When Sheriff Kincaid decided to push for jail diversion, she led a delegation to Bexar County, Texas, (San Antonio) to visit what then was the gold standard in diversion programs. Since then, Fairfax has sent teams to Miami Dade County, Florida, and Maricopa County, Arizona, to learn best practices.

Now Director Yeager, Supervisor Cook, and Sheriff Kincaid are being asked to make presentations and delegations from other cities are coming here to learn about Diversion First.

This glowing report doesn’t mean there still aren’t problems.

Our police department is arresting too many persons for trespassing, rather than finding ways to get homeless individuals who are psychotic into shelters, supportive housing, and treatment. We need more mobile crisis response teams and, regrettably, Fairfax like other jurisdictions in Virginia, is slow in implementing a therapeutic docket.

However, given what has happened in only two years, Fairfax County residents should be tremendously proud of the leaders whom I’ve cited in this blog.

They’ve performed a miracle.

*Representatives from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, National Institute of Corrections, SAMHSA, National Sheriffs Association and National Association of Counties attended the Diversion First  meeting, including Ruby Qazilbash, Associate Deputy Director, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA),. who assists the Interdepartmental Serious Mental Illness and Serious Emotional Disturbance Committee, on which I serve. She is one of the smartest in helping communities move 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.