New Fairfax Co. mental health program diverts 100 from jail

WASHINGTON — Through a new public safety initiative in Fairfax County, dozens of would-be inmates have received mental health care instead of going to jail, officials announced Thursday at the National Press Club in D.C.

The program, called Diversion First, aims to keep low-risk, mentally ill individuals out of jail, and it has led to more than 100 people receiving treatment from January through March — the first three months the new treatment option was available.

“Over time, hundreds and hundreds of people will finally be getting the treatment they so desperately need,” said Fairfax County Supervisor John Cook, chairman of the Public Safety Committee.

Cook says the new strategy reduces recidivism and saves the county money. It costs $64,000 a year to house someone in the Fairfax County jail. In comparison, providing a year of mental health treatment costs just $7,500.

Under Diversion First, officers are also trained how to interact with people who have a mental illness, how to assess and how to de-escalate the situation rather than resorting to force. Training began last year but the mental health care portion of the program was launched in January. Individuals are now taken to a county Community Services Board facility in Merrifield for treatment and services instead of going to the county’s jail in Fairfax.

“You can hold, contain and mitigate these situations in most cases,” said Fairfax County Police Chief Ed Roessler.

“It will save lives, and that’s the ultimate goal here,” he said.

Sheriff Stacey Kincaid pledged to create the treatment program after the death of an inmate who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in 2015.

During a struggle with a jail staff, Natasha McKenna was hit with a stun gun multiple times. She later died of what the medical examiner determined to be the result of her mental illness and “excited delirium associated with physical restrain.” Her death was ruled an accident.

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