New program pushes mental health treatment, not jail time

WASHINGTON — A new program that helps troubled people get mental health treatment instead of jail time is gaining traction in Fairfax County.

The Diversion First program that began in January includes, but isn’t limited to, a new county crisis center, court and magistrate diversion efforts and first responders receiving crisis intervention training.

“Fairfax County will be the first police department in the United States of America to have all its sworn force trained in the critical decision making model,” said Fairfax County Police Chief Ed Roessler.

Police academy recruits are now exposed to Crisis Intervention Team Training awareness in their first week at the academy, Roessler said.

An increasing number of incumbent officers are being certified in Crisis Intervention Team training.

“We are a national leader in this effort,” Roessler said referring to the entire program.

The Diversion First program includes the creation of the Merrifield Crisis Response Center, where patrol officers can take someone in crisis versus taking them to jail.

Of 265 mental health investigations by Fairfax County Police in January, 40 percent involved people being diverted to the new crisis center.

Adjustments to accommodate people with mental health issues are being made at the county jail. Inmates used to be released one minute after midnight.

“Coming out of jail [at that hour] with no place to go, no transportation, no medical services and no mental health services –  that of course was a tragedy in itself,” Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid said.

Now, the release time now is 8 a.m.: “That’s working out very well.”

At the Diversion First “update” news conference Thursday, county leaders expressed frustration over a shortage of state-provided treatment beds.

“I’ve been traveling to Richmond while the General Assembly is in session,” said Sharon Bulova, chair of the Fairfax County Supervisors.

While meeting with state senators, delegates and the governor, Bulova said she’s been lobbying for more mental treatment facilities to be built.

Advocates say initial startup costs of the Diversion First program eventually will be balanced by money saved.

“There is an enormous savings in the cost of not having someone spend time in jail and instead receive treatment and continue to live in the community,” Bulova said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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