Fairfax County is launching a program to reduce the number of mentally ill inmates at its jail by diverting nonviolent offenders experiencing crises into treatment instead of incarceration.

The move follows the high-
profile case of Natasha McKenna, a schizophrenic woman who died in February after a team of sheriff’s deputies at the jail repeatedly used a Taser on her and hit her when she resisted their efforts to transfer her to another facility.

About 40 percent of the jail’s 1,100 inmates suffer from mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, or both, the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office has said. Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid has faced sharp criticism since McKenna’s death.

“My top priority is to divert these individuals suffering from mental illness to a mental health treatment facility where they can get the sustainable treatment they so desperately need,” Kincaid wrote in an e-mail.

Natasha McKenna (Courtesy of Natasha McKenna's family)

Diversion First, as the program is dubbed, is scheduled to begin Jan. 1 and will take about three to five years to implement if full funding can be secured. The effort will pursue work on a number of fronts to keep the mentally ill out of jail.

Officials plan to create a crisis-intervention team to train law enforcement officers to deal with the mentally ill. An assessment site will be created, allowing mentally ill offenders in need of treatment to appear before a trained officer instead of going straight to the jail.

The county also plans to add a second Mobile Crisis Unit to provide emergency mental health personnel in the field when requested by county officials or law enforcement.

The Fairfax County court system will add a mental health docket, which will aim to identify the mentally ill and get them into treatment instead of pushing them toward incarceration.

“It’s going to be an enormously impactful change in the way people with mental illness are treated,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova (D) said.

The efforts in Fairfax come as law enforcement officials in the Washington region and across the country are increasingly seeking to improve how the criminal-justice systems interacts with those who suffer from mental illness. In Maryland, Montgomery County officials last month announced that they also are moving to add a mental health docket geared toward treatment rather than punishment. A new law in Pennsylvania requires mental health awareness training for police officers and judges. And authorities in Georgia are pushing to train law enforcement officers in every department to deal with the mentally ill.

In Fairfax, Pete Earley, a mental health advocate and author, said McKenna’s death has served as a wake-up call for the county when it comes to the mentally ill in the criminal justice system. His mentally ill son was briefly incarcerated at the jail in 2002.

“Fairfax County and Virginia have been behind nationally when it comes to implementing [Crisis Intervention Training], jail diversion, mental health dockets . . . and other initiatives that will save tax dollars and get people who are sick into treatment rather than jail,” Earley wrote in an e-mail.

Earley said that many of the same proposals being put forward by county officials were floated a decade ago and again after the Virginia Tech shooting rampage in 2007, but the political will flagged when it came time to implement them.

He said he is cautiously optimistic that things will be different this time because of the number of advocates and county officials — from the sheriff to judges — who have bought into the changes after McKenna’s death. About 50 of them met Monday night to discuss the initiative. Earley called the McKenna case an “alarm bell.”

McKenna, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 12, allegedly punched an Alexandria police officer in mid-January. On Jan. 26, county police arrested her on charges related to that case and transferred her to the county jail.

Alexandria police were supposed to pick her up on three occasions but failed to show for reasons that are being investigated by the department. McKenna’s mental health deteriorated during that eight-day period and she had minor altercations with deputies, according to an incident report.

On the morning of Feb. 3, sheriff’s deputies decided to move McKenna to Alexandria. She was initially cooperative, placing her hands through a food slot so she could be handcuffed, according to the incident report.

She then began resisting, and a team of six deputies wrestled with her for about 20 minutes before they put her in hand and leg restraints, and a mask. When she resisted being put in a restraint chair to be transferred, she was Tasered four times.

McKenna, 37, stopped breathing soon after and died at a hospital days later. A medical examiner ruled that her death was an accident caused by “excited delirium,” a controversial condition in which someone grows so stressed that their heart or lungs give out.

Fairfax County prosecutors are reviewing the case to decide whether to file criminal charges. Harvey Volzer, an attorney for McKenna’s family, said the move to create a diversion program comes too late.

“Now that Natasha McKenna’s death has exposed Fairfax’s indifferent and hostile treatment toward the mentally impaired, Chairman Bulova belatedly recognizes that compassionate care is necessary,” Volzer wrote in an e-mail.