After Only Two Years, Fairfax Is Recognized As National Jail Diversion Model; But Still More To Do.

sheriff kincaid

Sheriff Kincaid monitoring inmates in detention center

(8-11-17) I am amazed. In less than two years, Fairfax County, Virginia, has gone from showing little interest in jail diversion to being spotlighted as a national model.

Bravo! That’s a true accomplishment. Still, there is more to do but let’s focus first on the positive.

Nine Fairfax officials have been asked to speak in September at a Data Driven Justice and Behavioral Health Design Institute meeting in Rockville, Maryland, about how the county has successfully implemented its Diversion First program. The meeting is being sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) and the National Association of Counties (NACo). It’s designed to help community leaders from across the nation learn how to create jail diversion programs by inviting those who already have established successful programs to share their knowledge.

Sheriff Stacey Kincaid deserves much of the credit for bringing jail diversion to Fairfax. After the 2015 tragic death of Natasha McKenna in the Fairfax Adult Detention Center, the sheriff traveled to Bexar County, Texas, to learn about its diversion program and returned determined to establish something similar. (Compare her commendable actions to the shameful response by officials at the Hampton Roads Regional jail, where Jamycheal Mitchell literally starved to death. They insisted they hadn’t done anything wrong and kept information from the public.)

In the county’s official press release, posted at the end of this blog, Sheriff Kincaid shares credit.

A primary reason we have come so far so fast is that we have 180 stakeholders, including law enforcement; mental health providers, advocates and consumers; county government leaders; defense attorneys and prosecutors; and magistrates and judges. We cannot and do not solve problems by operating in silos.”

That’s certainly true, but the main diversion champions in Fairfax have been the sheriff, Board of Supervisor Chair Sharon Bulova, Supervisor John Cook, Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr., Program Director Laura Yager, and several Community Services Board leaders, such as retired Air Force General Gary Ambrose, Tisha Deeghan, and Daryl Washington.

While I’m ecstatic about what has been accomplished, Fairfax needs to take further steps.

Seriousness of the crime shouldn’t be the deciding factor

Many successful jail diversion programs don’t differential between low-level crimes (misdemeanors) and felonies. So far, Fairfax only diverts those charged with low level crimes even though there are studies that show the severity of an offense is not necessarily a good indicator of whether someone will succeed or fail if they are diverted into treatment. Other factors often come into play, according to Carol Fisler, director of Mental Health Court Programs at the Center for Court Innovation in New York, who published a research paper last year in the American Bar Association’s  Judges’ Journal. Looking specifically at mental health court outcomes, she determined these factors are more important than the actual charge when looking at recidivism.

Prior criminal histories and substance abuse, antisocial history, antisocial attitudes, influence of friends and peers; substance abuse; family discord; lack of success in education and employment; and lack of positive leisure activities.

Prosecutors charge defendants with the highest possible offense knowing that a plea bargain can be negotiated later to avoid a costly trial. Consequently, a number of individuals with serious mental illnesses end up being charged with felonies, which often disqualifies them for diversion into treatment.

Asking a judge and prosecutor to divert someone accused of a felony requires both the judge and prosecutor to be educated about mental illnesses and for them to trust the diversion process that is in place. Sadly, Fairfax is not there yet, even though communities such as Seattle, Washington, have been successfully diverting felons for some time.

Fairfax also can’t rob Peter to pay Paul.

While Fairfax has done a great job implementing jail diversion, those in charge shouldn’t be supporting jail diversion at the expense of other important programs. The Adult Detention Center is supposed to have sixteen mental health professionals providing jail based services, including a senior clinician, a registered nurse, three substance abuse counselors, three mental health therapists and a part time psychiatrist.

Yet a review of jail records shows that on many months there are only ten to twelve CSB employees – not 16 – serving an average 1,100 inmates. It’s dangerous not to staff these positions.

Successful diversion programs use what’s called the sequential intercept model to identify inmates who need help as well as those who are never booked into jail.

Because of a opioid crisis that is killing nearly 150 people per day nationwide, the number of mental health counselors and substance abuse experts inside the Fairfax jail should be increased. That’s tough to do for a cash strapped CSB, but not doing it will risk causing more preventable tragedies.

I’m proud of how far Fairfax County has come. Its progress is impressive. But let’s keep pushing further by supporting community programs that keep individuals out of jail and making certain those who are incarcerated have access to mental health and substance abuse services.

Here is the official county press release:

Diversion First Initiative Chosen for National Behavioral Health Institute

News Highlights

  • Diversion First will be discussed at a Design Institute in Rockville, Maryland Sept. 6-8.
  • Nine leaders from Fairfax County will attend to address issues and complexities surrounding the diversion process.
  • Participants will learn how to integrate data in decisions that help make efficient use of county support services and resources.

Following a highly competitive selection process, Fairfax County’s collaborative Diversion First program has been accepted into the Data Driven Justice and Behavioral Health Design Institute in Rockville, Maryland, Sept. 6-8, 2017.

The Design Institute advances the work of jurisdictions committed to meeting the needs of persons with complex physical health, behavioral health and social service needs while reducing unnecessary use of jails and high-cost emergency rooms. Nine Fairfax County community leaders will work with their peers from across the nation to address specific issues surrounding the complexities of diversion. The contingent will represent a cross section of first responders and human services. The Institute helps jurisdictions take the next step in planning and implementing data-sharing strategies to improve service delivery and health outcomes for individuals involved in the criminal justice system that have a multitude of complex physical and mental health and social service needs. Attendees will conduct hands-on exercises to develop action plans for their communities.

The Design Institute is jointly sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) and the National Association of Counties (NACo). The goal of the program is to provide information, tools and strategies needed to improve care for individuals and reduce costs. Specifically, the event is focused on teaching community leaders how to integrate data from various services sectors, as well as how to make efficient use of limited health, behavioral health, criminal justice and social support services and resources.

Diversion First Stakeholder Update

Diversion First, a local initiative that began in late 2015, works collaboratively to seek alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illness, developmental disabilities and co-occurring substance use disorders who come into contact with the criminal justice system for low level offenses. Public safety personnel, mental health clinicians, the courts and many others are working side by side to bring people in these situations to the Merrifield Crisis Response Center (MCRC) for assessment and referral to appropriate treatment or other needed supports, rather than having them spend time in jail for behavior that stems from their illness or disability.

Diversion First partner agencies include the Fairfax County Sheriff’s OfficeFairfax County Police DepartmentFairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board (which operates MCRC), Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, and Fairfax County Courts.

“While Fairfax County is still in the early stages of our diversion program, we have already become a reference point for other jurisdictions in the United States,” said Fairfax Sheriff Stacey Kincaid. “A primary reason we have come so far so fast is that we have 180 stakeholders, including law enforcement; mental health providers, advocates and consumers; county government leaders; defense attorneys and prosecutors; and magistrates and judges. We cannot and do not solve problems by operating in silos.”

The most recent quarterly Diversion First stakeholders meeting drew an audience of more than 70 to hear about the remarkable progress of this pioneering effort.

Highlights include:

  • More than 25% of the county’s police force and 17% of sheriff’s deputies have received Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training to be able to recognize symptoms and behaviors associated with mental illness and other disabilities and de-escalate emergency situations on scene.
  • In its second year of operation, the Merrifield Crisis Response Center (MCRC) continues to be a key intercept point of Diversion First. Co-located with CSB’s emergency services at the Merrifield Center, the MCRC operates as an assessment site where police officers and sheriff’s deputies trained in crisis intervention are on duty to accept custody when a patrol officer brings in someone who is experiencing a crisis and needs a mental health assessment. The ability to transfer custody at the MCRC enables patrol officers to return quickly to their regular duties and facilitates the efficient provision of appropriate services for the individual in crisis. Thanks to additional funding provided for FY 2018, law enforcement personnel are now on duty 24/7 at the MCRC.
  • From January through June 2017, law enforcement officers brought 939 people to the MCRC. Of those 939 individuals, 211 had potential criminal charges but were diverted from arrest to mental health services. The Board of Supervisors provided funding in FY 2017 that enabled CSB to hire additional emergency services staff to help support Diversion First.
  • CSB received a second year of state grant funding – for a two-year total of over $1 million — for its Diversion First housing initiative. With its community partner, New Hope Housing, CSB is providing safe, stable housing – plus clinical supports – for individuals with mental illness who are at risk of homelessness and of coming into contact with the criminal justice system.
  • Our current focus is on strengthening courts efforts, including pretrial services and supervised release with an emphasis on leveraging mental health treatment when needed.

The community is reaping the benefits of this collaborative approach, which aims to prevent repeat encounters with the criminal justice system, improve public safety, promote a healthier community, save public dollars and – most importantly – help individuals who are in crisis recover and take control of their lives.

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.