3 Arkansas Groups Urge Funds for Mental Illnesses

Arkansas Online

By John Moritz

A trio of county government groups said Wednesday that Arkansas needs more funding for programs to divert the mentally ill from jail.

Meanwhile, lawmakers heard proposals for funding the state’s two corrections agencies.

In a news release, the County Judges Association of Arkansas, the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association and the Quorum Court Association of Arkansas announced they had each passed resolutions calling on state government to fund a series of mental health care proposals developed by a policy group hired by the state to study criminal justice changes.

Those proposals included training for law enforcement officers to recognize mentally ill offenders and building crisis centers where those offenders can be diverted for treatment. The groups also called for behavior health services to be provided in jails.

The release called on the state to provide “adequate funding” for the programs, though several members reached Wednesday said they did not have a specific amount in mind.

In his budget proposal unveiled to a legislative budget panel last week, Gov. Asa Hutchinson asked for $5 million starting in fiscal 2018 to develop three crisis stabilization centers through the Department of Human Services’ Division of Behavioral Health Services. The governor’s budget also includes a $50,000 annual increase to the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy for ­crisis-intervention training.

Jake Bleed, a spokesman for the Department of Finance and Administration, said the governor’s budget does not have specific increases for the in-jail mental health programs.

The governor’s budget and the requests from the county groups adopted recommendations developed by the New York-based Council of State Governments Justice Center, which released its findings in August on how to ease the state’s growing prison population.

By limiting the number of days parolees and probationers could spend locked up for minor violations — such as failing a drug test — the Department of Correction could free enough beds to avoid building a 1,200-bed prison, according to the report.

The report also proposed programs to treat addicts and mentally ill offenders to keep them out of jail, and hiring more probation and parole officers to reduce caseloads.

The state prison population is expected to surpass 21,000 by 2023, according to the Justice Center; the current capacity is 15,174.

As of Wednesday, the backup of Department of Correction prisoners housed in county jails was 1,367, according to prisons Director Wendy Kelley.

The Justice Center’s recommendations were presented to the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task force in August before receiving the panel’s endorsement on Oct. 4. Immediately after the task force’s October meeting, the Justice Center presented its report to the Association of Arkansas Counties, which is affiliated with the three county-officer groups.

County officers said Wednesday they have worked for years to advocate for more state funding to help keep mentally ill offenders out of county jails.

“With mental health, there are folks in our county jails that do not need to be there,” said Newton County Sheriff Keith Slape, the president of the sheriffs’ association. “They may not need to be on the streets, but they do not need to be incapacitated in the jail.”

While supportive of the governor’s budget, Polk County Judge Brandon Ellison, a board member of the Association of Arkansas Counties, said it did not go far enough to provide a statewide jail diversion program for the mentally ill.

“We believe three [crisis centers] is clearly not enough for the state, but we hope it will spotlight what can happen in the future if we are successful,” Ellison said.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the legislative Joint Budget Committee considered funding requests by the Department of Correction and Arkansas Community Correction, and opted to move forward with the governor’s proposed budget for each agency.

Community Correction, which oversees probation and parole programs, sought authority to hire 217 new staff members in fiscal years 2018 and 2019, which would increase annual salary costs by $9.5 million at the end of the biennium. Instead, lawmakers moved to accept the governor’s budget proposal, which did not include more money.

Community Correction Director Sheila Sharp said after the meeting Wednesday that she had not expected the legislative committee to go ahead with funding for the new positions, because they had yet to be approved.

Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he hopes to include between $1 million to $1.5 million for new probation and parole officers as part of a plan to address the recommendations of the Criminal Justice Task Force during the Legislature’s general session beginning in January.

“I don’t think there’s any way we can fund all of it but we’ll look to fund as much of it as we can,” Hutchinson said of the proposals. “However many new positions that we could fund should go entirely to new officers.”

During Wednesday’s budget meetings, Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, questioned whether the increase in Community Correction staff was necessary given the makeup of the department’s workforce, which he said included too many management positions.

Sharp told the legislative committee that 464 of the Department’s 1,382 employees are parole and probation officers who supervise a caseload of about 54,000 offenders. The department’s central office has a staff of 100, she said, and the rest of the employees are counselors, area managers or work in prisons and residential treatment centers.

“I think we need to take a hard look inside the number of management positions and see if we can put them in the field,” Williams said.

The committee also endorsed most of the governor’s nearly $858 million budget for the Correction Department over the biennium, which was about $3.7 million less than the agency’s request.

Concerned about a recent legislative audit that found the prison farm program operated at a loss, Williams asked the budget committee to meet again to discuss the more than $38 million budgeted for the farm program over the next two years.