Commentary: Breaking the Cycle of Crime with Treatment Instead of Jail

Commentary: Breaking the Cycle of Crime with Treatment Instead of Jail

Fairfax County Budget Invests $3.89 Million in “Diversion First”

One in five adults in the U.S. experience mental illness, and more than half did not receive treatment within the past year. Across the country, more people with mental illness are in jail than in psychiatric hospitals, with 2 million people with mental illness brought to jail every year. The criminalization of mental illness is a social, health and justice issue that Fairfax County has tackled head-on in this year’s FY2017 Adopted Budget.

Diversion First, a new Fairfax County initiative, aims to reduce the number of people with mental illness in our jail. When people with mental illness have a non-violent or low-level encounter with the law, police officers can take them to the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board’s (CSB) Merrifield Crisis Response Center for treatment rather than jail. During this January alone, 265 mental health investigations were conducted by Fairfax County police officers in the field, and 40 percent of those investigations involved the CSB Merrifield Crisis Response Center.

Fully implementing Diversion First was a recommendation of Fairfax County’s Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission. In the county’s FY2017 Budget, officially adopted on April 26, 2016, the Board of Supervisors invested $7.5 million to implement many of these recommendations, including $3.89 million and a number of new staff positions for Diversion First.

Diversion First is a priority for the Board of Supervisors because the benefits of diverting people to treatment are enormous. First, people can recover from a mental health episode or become stabilized if they receive treatment. If brought to jail, chances of recovery are less likely and reentry back into the community adds even more challenges. With a record of jail time, applying for jobs and housing becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible. Guiding people to treatment instead of incarceration helps prevent a cycle of crime before it even starts, giving residents a better shot at managing and living successfully with mental illness, which benefits the entire community.

Diversion First not only saves lives, it also saves money. It is extremely expensive to the taxpayer to house people in jail who could be better served elsewhere. On average, people with mental illness remain incarcerated four to eight times longer than those without mental illness for the same charge and can cost up to seven times more. In Fairfax County, it costs an average of $66,000 per year to hold one inmate in jail. Compare that to about $8,000 for one year of the most intensive CSB care for an individual, which does not include housing. A jail diversion program in Bexar County, Texas (Fairfax County’s model for Diversion First) saved taxpayers $50 million in the past five years. We are aiming for a similar outcome here in Fairfax County that promotes a safer, healthier and less expensive way of helping people with mental illness.

As part of Diversion First, Fairfax County police officers and deputy sheriffs are receiving 40 hours of state-certified Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training to learn about the challenges of living with a mental illness and how to de-escalate crisis situations, both in the community and in the jail. CIT training is also aimed at changing the way law enforcement and the judicial system interact with people who have substance use disorders or intellectual and developmental disabilities.

After completing the training, CIT officers and deputies are better equipped to identify individuals who are experiencing an episode related to mental illness. They can make an informed decision to take persons to the Merrifield Crisis Response Center for assessment rather than arresting them and bringing them to the Adult Detention Center. Or, CIT officers may be able to de-escalate the crisis and resolve the situation on the spot.

If you call 9-1-1 for a mental health crisis or emergency, you can request a CIT-trained officer to respond. In a crisis that is not life threatening or when involving law enforcement is not necessary, you can call CSB Emergency Services 24/7 at 703-573-5679.