About one in five Americans has a mental health issue. In our county jail, the percentage is much higher. To address this, we have launched Diversion First so that incarceration would no longer be the default solution for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis.
Diversion First offers alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illness or developmental disabilities who come into contact with the criminal justice system for low level offenses. The goal is to intercede whenever possible to provide assessment, treatment or needed supports. People needing diversion may also have a substance use disorder, which often co-occurs with mental illness.
Diversion First is designed to prevent repeat encounters with the criminal justice system, improve public safety, promote a healthier community and provide a more cost-effective and efficient use of public funds.
We launched Diversion First in August 2015 with the goal of reducing the number of people with mental illness brought to jail. On Jan. 1, 2016, the Merrifield Crisis Response Center (MCRC) opened with specially trained law enforcement on-site to accept custody of individuals diverted by officers in the field.
During the first two years of Diversion First, 778 people were diverted from potential arrest. That means our program is helping more than one person per day find better options for treatment and assistance than jail incarceration.
Diversion looks different for each person, but typically it involves assessments that outline treatment or services that specifically address underlying behavioral health issues.
We have been able to learn more about our inmates with behavioral health issues over the past two years. This information helps us to refine and adapt the diversion program, to help increase the number of people diverted as well as to reduce the number of individuals who return to jail. We are constantly reminded that every number we collect is a real person who has a unique experience in the world – something that makes the data we consider all the more important and meaningful.
In addition to learning about trends of those who stay and return to jail, we have been able to learn more about common risk factors that may lead to incarceration. The county data team examined a sample of 125 adults who received services from the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board within 12 months following a visit to the MCRC with law enforcement officers. They found that, among other factors, those who were homeless were five times more likely to be incarcerated within 12 months than those who were not homeless.
Locally, we are participating in the National Association of Counties’ Stepping Up Initiative, a national effort to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jails. Stepping Up hosts a national Day of Action on May 16, and for our part we are encouraging residents to learn more about Diversion First and our efforts. You can visit the Diversion First website or read the 2017 Diversion First Annual Report.
Want to take your commitment to helping those with mental health disorders a step further? Sign up for one of our free Mental Health First Aid classes.