Fairfax County Making Progress With Mental Health Dockets: Sheriff Kincaid Launches New Alcohol/Drug Treatment Program Inside Jail. Bravo!

(1-30-19) Great news for residents of Fairfax, Virginia, where I live. We are well on our way to getting an authorized mental health docket and our local adult jail has started an innovative alcohol/drug treatment program to help inmates kick their habits.

Fairfax District Court Judge Tina Snee announced during a community meeting that 160 cases had been heard since August 2018 in a speciality docket that is being used as a pilot program pending Virginia State Supreme Court approval of a  mental health docket. Judge Snee said she hopes that approval will enable a de facto mental health court to begin reviewing cases in April 2019. (You can’t call them courts in Virginia, only dockets.)

The pilot has helped Judge Snee test what works and what needs improvement. Casey Lingan, the chief deputy Commonwealth Attorney (prosecutor) assigned to the docket, said that holding hearings on Friday afternoons was problematic because many of the mental health and housing services that defendants might need can’t process the court’s orders late on a Friday, leaving defendants without much needed help over weekends. He suggested moving the hearings to Wednesday mornings.  Marissa Farina-Morse, the Community Services Board rep  (CSB’s provide mental health services in Virginia), said she obtained a cell phone to a defendant after he complained about not being able to reach court officials, to whom, he was supposed to report or speak to case managers responsible for helping him. She was surprised at how useful that cell phone proved to be. Dawn Butorac, the chief public defender, commented about how useful peers had proven to be in helping defendants transition from court into treatment.

None of these observations will surprise those of you who live in localities that have been operating mental health courts for years. But these practical discoveries in Fairfax will certainly help make a docket successful. Such talk reminded me of how communities had to find ways for the police to drop off individuals at mental health centers as quickly or faster than they could at a jail – otherwise officers took the easier route. I remember Fountain House President Kenneth J. Dudek telling me months ago how issuing cell phones to clients helped them better manage their recovery.  At first, everyone assumed those cell phones would get lost or sold/traded/pawned for drugs and alcohol. But that simply didn’t happen. Instead, case managers were able to keep in better touch with their clients, clients could make appointments, and most importantly, families could communicate with their loved one.

Judge Snee also spoke about how the “dynamics” in her courtroom have changed. Because many of the defendants are repeatedly arrested for such minor crimes as trespassing, Judge Snee and other court officials learn more about them. The docket helps put more “humanity” into the legal process. Judge Snee and Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Penney Azcarate, who launched a successful veterans docket, are two of our county’s best jurists.

Judge Tina Snee

Judge Snee’s comment reminds me of what Judge Matthew D’Emic of the Brooklyn Mental Health Court said: “Engagement with the judge is one of the reasons for our participants’ success. It’s the same as with other relationships. If I engage with someone, and that person engages with me, we don’t want to disappoint each other.”

The Fairfax mental health docket is an outgrowth of Diversion First, which was launched three years ago in Fairfax, and has been championed by Fairfax Board Chair Sharon Bulova, Supervisor John Cook and Sheriff Stacey Kincaid. In that short span, Diversion First has become a national model.

Hopefully, the next step in the courts will be broadening the mental health docket to include felonies. Prosectors tend to charge defendants with the highest possible offenses, knowing that a plea bargain will be cut later. This practice often precludes those charged with felonies from mental health dockets. Research shows that the type of crime is not necessarily a good measure of whether someone will reoffend. Rather such factors as prior criminal histories and substance abuse, antisocial history, antisocial attitudes, friends and peers; substance abuse; family discord; lack of success in education and employment; and lack of positive leisure activities are more important predictors.

Sheriff Kincaid also announced at the community Diversion First meeting that she has started STAR – an acronym for Striving To Achieve Recovery– in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Facility (county jail). Sheriff Kincaid explained that for years her mantra was that her jail provided services but not treatment. Now, she is intent on changing that, she said.

STAR is a peer run 12 Step program combined with Living in Balance. The latter is a research based, flexible, practical, and user-friendly substance abuse treatment curriculum that helps clients address issues in lifestyle areas that may have been neglected during addiction.

Sheriff Kincaid said a key aspect of the voluntary drug/alcohol recovery program is recognizing the role that trauma plays in addictions. The idea for STAR came after Sheriff Kincaid heard about a similar successful HARP – Herion Addiction Recovery Program – in the Chesterfield County Jail. She immediately took a delegation to Chesterfield to learn about it, just as she led a trip more than three years ago to San Antonio, Texas, to learn about its Crisis Intervention Team training and jail diversion programs.

Sheriff Kincaid has become a national recognized leader in corrections, especially when it comes to dealing with inmates with mental illnesses and addictions. She noted that up to 60% of inmates in her jail have addictions and 40% have a diagnosable mental illness.

Helping someone recover from the symptoms of their mental illness and/or addictions is not only the moral thing to do but also the smart thing. Research shows treatment helps cut recidivism, saves tax dollars, and helps make our communities safer. As the parent member of the Interdepartmental Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee, which advises Congress, I am a strong supporter of problem solving courts.

Gary Ambrose, a retired Air Force general whose deceased son, Brad, had a mental illness, has done a tremendous job implementing Diversion First with assistance from Lisa Potter. I’m proud that my son, Kevin, was actively involved in Diversion First before changing jobs and leaving Fairfax County.

General Ambrose said the Fairfax Police received 7,925 calls during 2018 that involved a mental illness. Of those, 530 were diverted from being arrested, 1,616 were detained on an emergency custody orders and 662 voluntarily went into a hospital for treatment.

Thank you to everyone who is improving the treatment, aiding in the recovery, and helping both those who are ill and addicted and our community with solutions rather than maintaining an unsuccessful treadmill of jail, streets, jail.

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.