At the March 21 Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee Meeting, the better part of the agenda focused on Diversion First — a program whose next phase is to be left unfunded in the county’s Advertised FY 2018 Budget.
Diversion First was adopted by local leaders in August 2015, and went into full effect on Jan. 1, 2016, with the opening of the Crisis Response Center at the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board’s Merrifield Center. Based on what’s known as the “Sequential Intercept Model” that identifies “specific points of intervention to prevent individuals from entering or moving deeper into the criminal justice system,” the purpose of Diversion First is to “offer alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illness or intellectual/developmental disabilities who come into contact with the criminal justice system for low level offenses.”
At the Crisis Response Center, police can transfer custody of nonviolent offenders to officers and deputies who have been through intensive Crisis Intervention Team training instead of taking them to jail.
Studies and the experiences of law enforcement and judicial personnel, as well as mental health professionals show that many people are in jail due to mental illness — and that jails are not appropriate places to provide mental health treatment. Sending nonviolent offenders who suffer from mental illness and/or intellectual/developmental disabilities to jail, instead of helping them to the medical assistance they need, does little more than perpetuate a cycle of repeat offenses, potential self harm, risk to the public at large, unnecessary expense, and the loss of a patrol officer’s time on the streets, officials say.
Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock District), chair of the Public Safety Committee said, “Diversion First will help people get treatment and become self-sufficient, reduce crime by combating recidivism, and save money by reducing our jail population.”
In addition to the crisis response facility, a key component of the Diversion First program is to deliver Crisis Intervention Team state-certified training that focuses on how to de-escalate crisis situations related to mental health issues, and to provide Mental Health First Aid, and mental health awareness training for emergency department personnel.
AT THE PUBLIC SAFETY MEETING, Laura Yager, from the office of the county executive, offered the meeting attendees an overview of the program’s first year in operation.
In 2016, the Crisis Response Center received 1,580 police-involved cases from the jurisdictions of Fairfax County, the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, the towns of Herndon and Vienna, George Mason University, Northern Virginia Community College, and the Virginia State Police, equalling 31 percent of all of the CSB’s Emergency Services cases.
In Fairfax County alone, 3,566 mental health investigations were conducted in the field by the county police department, of which, 1,958 were resolved in the field.
The Mobile Crisis Unit provided services with law enforcement contact or referrals to 467 individuals.
The Sheriff’s Office handled 35 Emergency Custody Orders and Criminal Temporary Detention Orders from jail, transported 128 people from the Crisis Response Center to region mental health hospitals and another 23 people from jail to a behavioral health hospital.
In a year that focused primarily on Intercept 1 from the Sequential Intercept Model — where the point of contact is through law enforcement or emergency personnel — 375 people were diverted from potential arrest.
The program-mandated training has been rolled out with 265 law officers and 42 dispatchers Crisis Intervention Team certified.
Thirty magistrates and 248 sheriff’s deputies have completed Mental Health First Aid training. Law enforcement, judicial and emergency services personnel are trained to better identify and assist persons who are experiencing a crisis related to mental illness or disability or whose actions may be attributed to those conditions. They may be able to de-escalate a situation and resolve it in the field, or bring the persons involved to the Crisis Response Center for further assessment and assistance rather than choosing to arrest them and bringing them to the Adult Detention Center or youth facility.
The numbers indicate that more people are receiving appropriate treatment versus warehousing in county detention centers.
Yager, and Michael Cassidy, Chief Judge, Fairfax County General District Court; Thomas Sotelo, Chief Judge, Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court; Sheriff Stacey Kincaid; and Lt. Ryan Morgan, Police Department, Crisis Intervention Team coordinator, all spoke at the Public Safety Committee meeting. All praised the early results of the program and indicated that it was time to focus on the next two points of intervention according to the Intercept Model: Initial Detention/Initial Hearing and the Courts and Jails.
HOW DID DIVERSION FIRST fall into the “Significant Unfunded Priorities in FY 2018” column?
A “challenging budget year,” “modest revenue growth at best” and the shadow of “significant increases to the county’s financial obligations to the Metro system” on the FY 2019 horizon, were words that County Executive Ed Long used to describe the factors for the Advertised FY 2018 Budget he presented to the Board of Supervisors on Feb. 14.
Long had prepared a budget that assumed no increase to the property tax rate for FY 2018. Two weeks after the Advertised Budget was formally presented, the Board of Supervisors did authorize an Advertised Tax Rate of $1.13, the same as the FY 2017 rate. The $5.3 million initially earmarked to take the Diversion First program forward gave way to other budget shortfalls.
Diversion First wasn’t the only loser in the budget calculations.
The Fairfax County Public School Board was allocated $61 million less than requested. A market adjustment in compensation for county employees could not be met. Capital investments already deferred will be deferred yet again.
But amid these current programs and future priorities that are falling victim to the budget squeeze, Diversion First wasn’t alone even in its own category. In addition to facing no funds for the second part of the program, funding for other public safety considerations are staring at the same fate. Consultant-recommended public safety staffing of $8.5 million, Police Span of Control positions as recommended by the Ad-Hoc Police Review Committee for $7.9 million, and other Ad-Hoc Committee recommendations totalling $7 million are keeping Diversion First company on the unfunded side of the balance sheet.
Residents will have an opportunity to weigh in on the Advertised FY 2018 budget at one of the public hearings being held on April 4 at 4 p.m., April 5 at 1 p.m. and April 6 at 1 p.m. All of the meetings will take place at the Fairfax County Government Center.
In the meantime, budget talks and committee meetings are on-going, until the board is scheduled to adopt a final version at its May 2 meeting.
Cassidy made an argument for five more probation officers to handle the increase in persons released from jail on condition of supervision.
Daryl Washington, deputy director, Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board said the CSB was in need of six more staff so they could be ready to assist court personnel at “Advisement Hearings,” which generally take place shortly after a detainee enters the court system.
Ryan reminded the meeting attendees that the Crisis Center was still only able to staff for 21.5 hours per day with the current funds available, and requested monies to put six more trained personnel in place.
Combined, the funds requested at the meeting totalled approximately $2 million.
“Diversion First has made a tremendous impact on our community … even in this tough budget atmosphere, I’m committed to finding at least partial funding to see through the next phase of this great program and keep up its momentum,” said Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee District).
Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill District) commented that she has been acquainted with similar programs since 2005 and has been enthusiastic about them. “While there are no committed funds in the FY 2018 budget, I remain hopeful,” she said. “After all, if we do not sustain Diversion First now, I despair for the long-term future.”
“I’m hopeful. No, more than that,” said Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville). “I am enthusiastic about Diversion First and I will do what I can to at least get them the partial funding that will keep this important work going.”
For now, expansion into the next phase for Diversion First will be in a “wait-and-see” mode, but county residents should know that whatever the outcome, Crisis Intervention Team-trained personnel are available and can be requested. The Community Services Board Emergency Services can be reached at 703-573-5679, and residents in need have the option to go directly to the Merrifield Crisis Response Center at 8221 Willow Oaks Corporate Drive in Fairfax.