Join Club

A program that diverted people from jail is fizzling without a coordinator

Jail entrance at the Arlington County Detention Facility (file photo)

A one-woman show ran one of the county programs that diverts people from jail.

Her departure this summer has left a hole in the county’s series of initiatives that keep defendants out of jail, reduce their time in the detention facility or improve their chances of not reoffending once they leave.

Bond Diversion works with criminal defendants who the Arlington Dept. of Human Services (DHS), attorneys and judges determined would fare better waiting for court appearances in stable housing and receiving community-based medical treatment. In many cases, participants had mental illnesses and committed minor misdemeanors.

DHS oversees the program as well as many of the services used by defendants who go through the program. The department is recruiting for a replacement but is up against a regional shortage of licensed behavioral health specialists, says DHS spokesman Kurt Larrick.

“[Bond Diversion] is basically on hold, though both the Forensic Diversion team and jail-based team are identifying opportunities to divert people and doing so when possible,” says Larrick, noting the position, which pays between $92,000 and $140,000, has been offered to two people who have declined.

Meanwhile, more people with mental illnesses are being booked in the Arlington County Detention Facility even as Arlington County is trying to disentangle law enforcement from mental health issues. Since 2020’s widespread calls for police reforms, the county has taken some steps to create community-based services that do not involve the criminal-legal system.

Arlington’s top prosecutor and chief public defender esteemed the last Bond Diversion coordinator for providing high-quality re-entry planning. They said these plans instilled confidence among prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges that defendants released from the jail would show up to court, stick with their treatment plans and not reoffend in the long term.

“[Bond Diversion] allowed us to have creative solutions that allowed us to not criminalize mentally ill people,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. “It allowed us to spend our resources in areas where you really needed to prosecute.”

Without it, the jail — already under scrutiny for the deaths of inmates, some of whom were homeless and booked on trespassing charges — has become home to people with mental illnesses who are held without bond or on bonds they cannot afford to pay. Although the jail has clinicians to help these inmates, this trend worries Dehghani-Tafti.

“We are warehousing mentally ill people in our jail because we do not have a functioning Bond Diversion program,” she said.

When it worked well, the program was “really cutting-edge diversion,” Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood said.

Now, his office is shouldering a lot of the reentry planning previously overseen by the Bond Diversion coordinator. Two paralegals, who normally review body-camera footage and prepare legal filings, are instead helping the office’s mitigation specialist draft reentry plans.

“Even that’s not enough,” Haywood said. “My office is too taxed to do reentry planning and someone at DHS is better equipped to access services they provide.”

Bond Diversion: One of several jail ‘off-ramps’  

Arlington has several “off-ramps” through which the court-involved can be diverted from the detention facility.

Some off-ramps are put into motion the moment law enforcement could be involved or does get involved. The Crisis Intervention Team, for instance, trains law enforcement in better responses to people with mental illnesses and encourages them to work with DHS to find mental health professionals or other services in lieu of incarceration.

Police who do arrest people bring them to the jail where they go before magistrates who determines — as part of the Magistrate’s Post-Booking Project — if they should stay in jail or be released for behavioral health interventions.

Bond Diversion is the next step.

If someone is held without bond or on a bond they cannot pay, they are arraigned before a district court judge. If applicable, Haywood says, the public defender’s office will be appointed and shortly after, will request that the client be released until their court date. For some clients, his office might request a Bond Diversion plan.

Other times, the referral may come from the prosecutor. Or the judge may be sympathetic to releasing the defendant because the crime was minor, but may feel uncomfortable doing so without a housing and medication plan in place, Haywood said.

Throughout this process, members of the 14-person, jail-based forensic diversion team are screening the mental health of defendants to determine what kind of behavioral health interventions they should get — whether in the jail or upon their release.

Between July 2022 and this June, 147 people went through Bond Diversion, which has averaged 80 per year since its inception eight years ago, says Larrick. Overall, DHS’s forensic diversion team has worked with about 150 clients a year since 2015 and 179 last fiscal year.

Having opportunities to get people with mental illnesses out of jail is crucial to their recovery journey, says Dehghani-Tafti.

“We know that if you’re mentally ill and you’re in jail, the longer you’re there, the more likely you are to decompensate and the more likely you are to not become healthy again,” she says. “How many hours and days and weeks a person spends in the jail has a lot to do and is correlated with how whether or not they commit more crimes.”

Arlington County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Amy Meehan confirmed the overall jail population is growing, as are the number of people experiencing mental health problems.

“The amount of time we are spending at the hospital is higher, the amount of court-ordered competency evaluations has risen and the number of individuals on psychotropic drugs has risen,” she said.

The state is paying attention to this, too — particularly to how many people are getting sent to state hospitals for treatment after being deemed incompetent to stand trial.

The Virginia Dept. of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services sent one of its doctors to meet with jail mental health providers to discuss ways to reduce these referrals, said Lauren Cunningham, communications director for the state agency.

“This is part of her overall duties to meet and create interventions to reduce inpatient admissions at state hospitals by targeting specific localities,” she said. “She has also met with Fairfax and Virginia Beach.”

A staff shortage within the Sheriff’s Office may also be affecting the wellbeing of inmates. Earlier this year, ARLnow reported fewer deputies in the jail has resulted in more lockdowns, when staffing falls below required levels and inmates have to be confined to their cells.

The other intercepts

Bond Diversion, and the other off-ramps, are part of what the county calls its “sequential intercept model.”

“It was very well planned,” Haywood said of the model. “The idea was to get each intercept working well to start the behavioral health docket and all the components you need for the program to do well.”

Launched in 2020, the behavioral health docket is reserved for people who either have more serious mental illnesses or commit more serious crimes, who likely would not have been eligible for the earlier “intercepts,” including Bond Diversion. Dehghani-Tafti and Haywood report the behavioral health docket is going well.

When all the pieces were being fit into place, Arlington was “on the right trajectory,” Haywood said.

Broader problems, however — including shortages of permanent supportive housing and local psychiatric beds — threatened the success of each intercept. Haywood said in recent years and months, he watched the Bond Diversion coordinator struggle with a mounting workload.

“Bond Diversion was never meant to shoulder the whole burden of the system,” Haywood said.

There are other examples of how intention does not always match action when it comes to behavioral health resources.

Arlington County reopened its Crisis Intervention Center — a calming facility for people experiencing a mental health crisis — in May. It was seen as a way to avoid a common situation in which law enforcement officers are forced to remain with someone in crisis in an emergency room until the hospital can evaluate them.

Only last week, however, could the center begin alleviating this strain by accepting people under these Emergency Custody Orders during weekday core business hours.

“It’s a unique sort of gig and takes a little time to get folks on board and trained,”  Larrick said. “It wasn’t able to by synced up with the CIC re-opening, but it occurred on a realistic timeline.”

Up until now, daily, the center was serving about five people, who either came in on their own, because someone brought them or because a police officer took them there instead of arresting them.

Other initiatives are even newer: the federally funded Mobile Outreach Support Team van debuted this summer, after Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) requested the funds for it two years ago.

This vehicle, stocked with food, water, a defibrillator, clothes, hygiene items, Narcan and fentanyl test strips, is dispatched between 1-9 p.m. to assist people in crisis and divert them from incarceration. It has responded to 65 calls in five weeks, many of which pertain to an uptick in homelessness after some D.C. shelters closed.

While these programs get up to speed, Dehghani-Tafti is worried that insufficient staffing could affect older programs, such as pretrial release handled by the Sheriff’s Office.

Meehan says ACSO has four pretrial officers and one Behavioral Health Docket specialist. For the last three fiscal years, it has asked for, but has not received, an additional pretrial officer due to the increase in case load for staff.

“Ideally, we would like to have at least five pretrial officers,” Meehan said. “Individuals with severe mental health concerns often will not meet the criteria for placement on the Pretrial program, which gives individuals one less option to be released from the facility.”

Even with these intercepts in place, mental health and law enforcement remain entangled in Arlington due to broader social issues.

“We are fully committed to providing a behavioral health system that meets community needs,” Larrick said. “Larger societal issues — access to affordable housing, access to health care, legacies of systemic racism — are part of the problem, and DHS and the County understand that those issues need to be addressed as well wherever we can.”

This reporting was supported by the ARLnow Press Club. Join today to support in-depth local journalism — and get an exclusive morning preview of each day’s planned coverage.

Recent Stories

There’s no official word on its website, but it looks like Bar Ivy in Clarendon has closed permanently. The “West Coast-inspired” restaurant at 3033 Wilson Blvd, noted for its expansive…

There’s persistence, and then there is Audrey Clement and her decade-plus effort to get elected to local office in Arlington. Clement talked with ARLnow editor Scott Brodbeck to talk about…

Makers Union, an upscale gastropub, is set to open its doors in Pentagon City next week, says Alex Brown, the restaurant’s director of operations. This opening marks the third Makers Union location in the D.C. Metropolitan area, following the debut of its Reston location three years ago and a recent opening at the Wharf in early October.

Two Arlington County Sheriff’s Office deputies prevented a near-fatal opioid overdose in the lobby of the county courthouse yesterday morning. The individual, a member of the public and not an…

Children’s Weekday Program (CWP) is a non-profit preschool rooted in a play-based philosophy. We focus on developing a love of learning and exploration, cooperation, empathy, and independence.

Our caring and experienced educators create opportunities for children 16 months to 5 years old to play, learn, and grow in a nurturing environment of child-centered and developmentally appropriate experiences.

Initially established more than 50 years ago in South Arlington, CWP continues to be a lauded program in the Northern Virginia area. We are extremely proud to have been recognized as a Best Preschool in Northern Virginia Magazine for the last 4 years.

Located now in North Arlington at 2666 Military Road, CWP offers a part-time parents day out and preschool program with options to extend care both before and after school. We offer a supportive and inclusive school community for children and parents alike and welcome all families to join our school!

Read More

Submit your own Announcement here.

The Optimist Club of Arlington is holding its 77th annual Christmas tree sale!

This year, the tree sale will be held at the Knights of Columbus (5115 Little Falls Road). The lot opens for sales on November 24th. The Optimist Club is selling small and large trees ranging from tabletop size to 10 foot tall trees! Wreaths, garland, tree stands, and White House Christmas ornaments will also be for sale.

100% of all proceeds go towards helping Arlington County youth.

For more information, please visit the Arlington Optimists website at

Submit your own Announcement here.

Holiday Art Show

Holiday Art Show featuring artists: Peter Fitzgerald, Claire Plante, Alanna Rivera, and Suzy Scollon. At the Barcroft Community House, 800 South Buchanan St., Arlington, VA. Dec. 8 from, 2 PM to 8 PM and Dec. 9 from 10 AM to

Christmas Tree Sales

2023 Christmas Tree Sales Begin

Saturday, December 2

Get your holiday decorating off to the right start this year! We will be selling 150 Fraser firs, freshly cut and delivered from Sparta, North Carolina.

Sale Hours:

Read More


Subscribe to our mailing list