A Third Have Schizophrenia, Most Drug/Alcohol Problems, Half Homeless: Offered Hope In Mental Health Court


Gary Ambrose, retired brigadier general, who lost his son to mental illness, speaks at Fairfax County Mental Health Docket graduation. Photo Courtesy of Fairfax County Government.

(10-15-20) This is the second in a three part series about Fairfax County’s mental health docket. Yesterday, I posted Washington Post Columnist Petula Dvorak’s profile of one of the first graduates from the docket program. Today, I look at the history behind the docket and statistics about those it helps.

More than a third of individuals with mental illnesses who participate in the Fairfax County’s mental health docket have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. More than half have drug and substance addictions and nearly half are homeless. The court helps link them with services so they can address those problems – as well as their criminal conduct.

I’ve been advocating for a mental health docket in my local county since 2008. Fairfax County finally submitted an application to the Virginia Supreme Court in January 2019 and launched its docket in July 2019, It held its first graduation ceremony earlier this month.  Fairfax General Court Judge Tina Snee issued completion certificates to three graduates with diagnosed mental illnesses who volunteered to participate in a rigorous treatment program instead of being punished through the traditional criminal justice system.

More than 350 mental health courts/dockets operate nationally. About two-thirds have been supervising cases since 2000. Studies have found that those who complete a court’s requirements tend to have lower rates of criminal activity and increased linkages to treatment services than defendants with mental illnesses who do not.

Judge Snee currently has eighteen participants under her supervision on her docket. Fairfax is one of eleven Virginia jurisdictions with a mental health docket, including one in Fairfax’s neighbor, Loudon County. The state also has approved a behavioral docket in Arlington. There are 95 counties in Virginia, so these dockets remain in a minority in our state.

Fairfax County also operates a Veteran’s Treatment Docket and a drug court. It was Judge Penney S. Azcarate who got support and approval in 2014 for a Veteran’s Treatment Docket. (Judge Azcarate served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps.) Judge Azcarate also oversees the Fairfax County Drug Court.  Judge Azcarate’s actions are what opened the door in the county’s judiciary for a mental health docket.

Sadly, the death of Natasha McKenna, an African American woman with a serious mental illness, who died in 2015 after being repeatedly stunned with a Taser at the Fairfax County’s Adult Detention Center, is what caused the county’s elected officials to get serious about diverting individuals with mental illnesses from jail into treatment. Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid championed the effort to create a Diversion First program. Former Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova and former Supervisor John Cook immediately jumped on board. Retired Air Force General Gary Ambrose, who lost his son to mental illness, was put in charge of bringing stakeholders together to develop the country’s Diversion First program. It was launched with great excitement the same year as McKenna’s death with tremendous support from a slew of groups, including fire fighters, local police departments, the Fairfax Falls Church Community Service Board (CSB), The Office of the Public Defender, The Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney, Court Services/Probation, General District Court (GDC) Judges, GDC Clerk’s Office, Victims’ Services Section – Fairfax County Police Department, and the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office. The county’s Diversion First program has been operating for five years and is the umbrella over which the mental health docket rests.

First Graduation Class

Judge Snee invited Gen. Ambrose to speak at the recent mental health docket’s graduation. He praised the three graduates for having the wisdom to volunteer for the docket, the courage to undertake the challenges put on them, and the grit and common sense to stick with the court’s requirements. The mental health docket requires participants to seek and accept treatment, and stick with that treatment, which is much more demanding than languishing in a jail cell.

At the graduation, Michelle Cowherd, the county’s mental health docket coordinator, released data about the program. She reported that individuals whose cases are under the supervision of Judge Snee had the following diagnoses: Schizoaffective disorder (30%) Schizophrenia (36%) Bipolar 1 Disorder (24%) Autism spectrum Disorder (5%) and Major Depressive Disorder with severe psychotic features (5%).

Cowherd reported that 65% of participants had co-occurring substance use disorders.

At the time of their arrests, 47% of docket participants were homeless. Those who had a roof over their head lived with family members (77%). Only 23 % were living independently.

Proponents of problem solving dockets cite the so-called “Black Robe Effect” – knowing that participants have to answer to a judge – for keeping participants in treatment programs.  But I believe the threat of having a judge watching you is not the entire reason why these dockets/courts are successful. They offer hope to defendants and offer them an opportunity to get treatment for their mental illnesses. They demonstrate that someone in authority cares enough to want them to do better rather than punishing them for crimes beyond their control because of their mental illnesses.

76% of those under Judge Snee’s supervision have been charged with felonies, including some with violent felonies. The victims of those crimes are offered an opportunity to be heard through the Victim Services Section of the Fairfax County Police Department. Victims can ask for special restrictions, such as no contact orders, on participants.

I applaud Judge Snee and the docket for accepting felonies. Oftentimes communities create mental health dockets or speciality courts and limit them to defendants accused of misdemeanors. This is short sighted. Prosecutors traditionally charge the highest possible crime against the accused and then plea bargain that offense to a lower one. I’m aware of incidents where individuals with serious mental illnesses have been charged with felony assault for spitting at a police officer.

In May 2015, Center for Court Innovation Director of Mental Health Court Programs Carol Fisler published a thought-provoking and controversial article in Judges Journal that questioned many of our commonly held beliefs about mental health courts/dockets. You can read my interpretation of her research here.

I am delighted that Fairfax County now has speciality courts and grateful to Judge Snee for supervising them. I will post a Q and A with her tomorrow.

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.