Diversion First


A huge civil rights issue in our country is the number of people who are in jail for nonviolent crime, many of whom are suffering from mental illness. The United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prison population. Many of these people enter our criminal justice system through the criminalization of substance abuse and mental illness. Prisons have become our de-facto place to house such people and prisons have few resources to adequately care for them or to help with rehabilitation.

Tina Garnett, a fifty-four-year-old woman serving a mandatory life sentence in Pennsylvania, is one such person that Bryan Stevenson writes about in his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Trina showed signs of intellectual disabilities and other troubles at a young age.  She and her sisters experienced homelessness and sexual abuse after their mother died when she was nine years old.

Trina was convicted of second degree murder when, as a fourteen-year-old girl, she sneaked into the home of a boy she had a crush on. She accidentally set the house on fire killing two people from smoke asphyxiation when she tried to find her way around in the dark with the aid of matches. She was tried as an adult and, under Pennsylvania’s mandatory sentencing guidelines, the judge had no choice other than to give her a life sentence. The state is still refusing to grant her the right to be resentenced in compliance with a recent Supreme Court ruling that children cannot be tried as adults.

The human cost of our broken criminal justice system is a huge tragedy for individuals, families, and our communities. President Obama and various leaders from both political parties are determined that we need to fix our broken criminal justice system. This week I saw an encouraging sign of progress when I participated in a Faith Communities in Action meeting at the Fairfax County 911 Call Center. We learned about the newly created Diversion First program that began this month in our county.

The police, along with other agencies, have created a Crisis Intervention Team where officers are given special training in handling crises when they are called to the scene of a minor crime or disturbance. They have the prerogative to redirect people who have created a disturbance into the health care system rather than taking them to jail.  We’ve recently created a therapeutic Crisis Response Center in our county for that purpose.

It’s not just the emotional toll on individuals and families; it includes the financial burden that incarceration imposes on a whole community. Nearly half of all Fairfax County jail inmate at any given time have mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders.  It costs about 104 dollars a day or almost $40,000 a year to keep a prisoner in jail in our county.  Still, moving people from jail to the health care system is only part of the solution because programs for treating such people in the health care system are severely underfunded.

Our church participates in a hypothermia program each winter and my interaction with these homeless guests leads me to believe that many suffer from mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Relegating them to the streets and their own resources cannot be the answer. Still, I’m encouraged by these positive steps in recognizing them as our neighbors and seeking to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper. I thankful for the privilege of serving as a pastor in a progressive community that’s working proactively at these seemingly implacable human problems.


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