Most of us cannot imagine what it is like to return as a veteran and have the horrors of our experiences abroad follow us home. Most of us cannot imagine what it is like to suffer a traumatic brain injury or endure a mental health challenge that threatens our future. Unfortunately, many of our veterans have not only lived these experiences, but have had them impact their lives significantly. Many veterans develop post-traumatic stress, substance use disorders, or other difficulties assimilating back into everyday life. They deserve just as much care and respect from us as they showed our nation.

All too often, when faced with a troubled veteran who committed a low-level offense, we approach the situation with incarceration. Instinctively, we lock up this offender during his or her crisis rather than offer the treatment he or she needs. In reality, incarcerating veterans who commit low-level offenses is more expensive, inefficient, and disregards their need for lasting treatment. Incarceration of those with mental health needs does not deter future crimes, but increases the odds of future offenses and a more pronounced need for help. It only serves to agitate an already vicious cycle, and does nothing to address the mental health issues these veterans may experience.

Here in Fairfax County, we are taking the lead in Virginia in fighting for treatment over incarceration when veterans or the mentally ill are involved in low-level offenses. I have been a major proponent of the Veterans Treatment Docket, a specialty court that works with veterans, not against them, by offering treatment, intense court supervision, and mentoring by a fellow combat Vet to help them in need get back on their feet.

The Veterans Treatment Docket recently graduated its first group of veterans, and is establishing its reputation here and across Virginia as a rigorous treatment program aiming to treat as many qualifying veterans as possible. The graduates of this first class, who have showcased the growing potential of this docket, are now in a much better position to improve their life. Their stories are constant reminders that diversion is possible, jail is seldom the answer to psychological illness, and that treatment can help save dollars, hours, and lives.

Similarly, our new Diversion First program offers opportunities to divert people with mental illness or significant disabilities from incarceration into treatment and services. This program is proven to improve lives, reduce crime, and save money in the long term. In just April alone, 114 people were taken to the Merrifield Crisis Response Center and received Diversion First treatment. This is not just a statistic; it represents real lives that are being improved through coordinated treatment and respect.

We are not just talking about treatment here in the County, because the time has passed to simply talk about aiding those with mental illness. In Fairfax, we are doing something about it.

Fairfax County Supervisor John C. Cook

Braddock District

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