New Video Shows How Fairfax Officials Joined Together To Create Model Diversion Program For Residents With Mental Illnesses

Please watch this short video about diverting persons with mental illness into treatment!

(5-18-18) I am so proud of how Fairfax County, Virginia has become a national model in diverting persons with mental illnesses into treatment rather than having them languish in jail.

For eight years after my book was published, I would return to my home county embarrassed after visiting communities that had embraced Crisis Intervention Team training, problem solving dockets, the sequential intercept model and post release programs.

I was frustrated and ashamed because there was little interest or support for any of these programs in Fairfax.

That’s no longer true.

Now because of collaboration and inspired leadership by our Board of Supervisors, Sheriff, Police Chief and other elected officials, a major cultural shift has happened.

Now when I give a speech, I brag about how Fairfax County has become a leader in mental health reform!

We still need to work on building supportive housing. We still need to push for expanding problem solving dockets (mental health and drug courts). We now need our judges and prosecutors to understand that individuals charged with both misdemeanors and felonies should be eligible for diversion because it is not the crime that should be the determining factor but whether or not the accused has a criminogenic personality. (Persons with chronic, serious mental illnesses often get charged with felony assault for resisting arrest.)

But the change in Fairfax has been breathtaking.

If your community leaders are unaware about the national Stepping Up initiative, you need to  copy and send them the video posted above. Tell them that diversion is not only a way to end the inappropriate incarceration of persons who are sick but also a smarter way to spend precious public tax resources.

Congratulations Fairfax County!

From the Fairfax County website.

About one in five Americans has a mental health issue. In our county jail, the percentage is much higher. To address this, we have launched Diversion First so that incarceration would no longer be the default solution for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis.

 Diversion First 20 Days Longer graphic


What is Diversion First?

Diversion First offers alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illness or developmental disabilities who come into contact with the criminal justice system for low level offenses. The goal is to intercede whenever possible to provide assessment, treatment or needed supports. People needing diversion may also have a substance use disorder, which often co-occurs with mental illness.

Diversion First is designed to prevent repeat encounters with the criminal justice system, improve public safety, promote a healthier community and provide a more cost-effective and efficient use of public funds.

Success in Our County

We launched Diversion First in August 2015 with the goal of reducing the number of people with mental illness brought to jail. On Jan. 1, 2016, the Merrifield Crisis Response Center (MCRC) opened with specially trained law enforcement on-site to accept custody of individuals diverted by officers in the field.

During the first two years of Diversion First, 778 people were diverted from potential arrest. That means our program is helping more than one person per day find better options for treatment and assistance than jail incarceration.

Diversion looks different for each person, but typically it involves assessments that outline treatment or services that specifically address underlying behavioral health issues.

 What We Know about Mental Illness in Jail

We have been able to learn more about our inmates with behavioral health issues over the past two years. This information helps us to refine and adapt the diversion program, to help increase the number of people diverted as well as to reduce the number of individuals who return to jail. We are constantly reminded that every number we collect is a real person who has a unique experience in the world – something that makes the data we consider all the more important and meaningful.

In addition to learning about trends of those who stay and return to jail, we have been able to learn more about common risk factors that may lead to incarceration. The county data team examined a sample of 125 adults who received services from the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board  within 12 months following a visit to the MCRC with law enforcement officers. They found that, among other factors, those who were homeless were five times more likely to be incarcerated within 12 months than those who were not homeless.

Diversion First risk factors


Stepping Up Day of Action

Locally, we are participating in the National Association of Counties’ Stepping Up Initiative, a national effort to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jails. Stepping Up hosts a national Day of Action on May 16, and for our part we are encouraging residents to learn more about Diversion First and our efforts. You can visit the Diversion First website or read the 2017 Diversion First Annual Report.

Want to take your commitment to helping those with mental health disorders a step further? Sign up for one of our free Mental Health First Aid classes.

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.