By John Lyon
LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Legislature and Gov. Asa Hutchinson this year approved a pilot program to create something that county officials have been advocating for since 2015: facilities where some mentally ill people who break the law can be taken instead of jail.
Act 423 of 2017 establishes a mechanism for creating crisis stabilization units, or CSUs, facilities that will provide short-treatment to mentally ill people who commit minor offenses such as disturbing the peace.
The goal is to get those people stabilized and returned to the community instead of putting them in jail, thereby reducing jail overcrowding and ensuring that mentally ill people get care that they need — care that jails are not equipped to provide.
Began at county level
In 2015, a coalition of groups including the Association of Arkansas Counties, the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association and the Mental Health Council of Arkansas formed a coalition to begin studying ways to divert mentally ill offenders to treatment instead of jail. The coalition sent groups to other states to study their programs and to a national seminar on the issue.
Sebastian County was one of the leaders of the effort in Arkansas. In 2016, the county held a summit on the issue, and officials such as County Judge David Hudson and Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck and legislators such as Rep. Charlotte Douglas, R-Alma, have appeared before legislative panels to advocate for CSUs, as have other advocates.
After hearing their testimony, the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force recommended the creation of CSUs. The governor embraced the idea and included $5 million for a pilot program in his proposed budget for fiscal 2018. The Legislature approved the funding.
Under Act 423, government entities can apply for state approval and funding to create and operate the facilities. A non-legislative task force created under the act will review the applications and select three, each of which will receive $1.6 million to establish and operate a 16-bed facility.
Possibility of expansion
Hudson said he hopes the pilot program will be successful enough to expand it statewide.
“If you can divert non-dangerous, non-violent, mentally ill folks from your jail into a treatment environment statewide, those individuals are coming back to the community, and that’s a win-win for the local government, for the state government and really all the communities,” he said.
State Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, who chaired the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force and sponsored the legislation that became Act 423, said he hopes the program will be expanded in the future to include eight facilities, which advocates have recommended.
“I think it’ll save incarceration costs, which is certainly significant, but probably more significantly, individuals who struggle with mental illness will get the help they need instead of finding themselves in a county jail for disorderly conduct or for disturbing the peace or something that they do while they’re having a mental crisis,” said Hutchinson, the governor’s nephew.
Jeremy Hutchinson said the facilities will benefit not only county jails but also the state prison system, because mentally ill people who commit minor offenses sometimes wind up in prison.
“In the county jail, or oftentimes just upon arrest, them being in the state of mind they’re in, they end up struggling with officers or causing problems in the county jail and they get charged with far more serious offenses that can result in prison time,” he said.
Sebastian County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Shue said diverting the mentally ill to treatment instead of jail “stops a lot of recidivism.”
“Those individuals that can be screened out, we can (put them on) a complete new path where they’re not in the criminal justice system and it’s not just the churning in and out of or jail and then ultimately in and out of our penitentiaries,” Shue said.
Sebastian County to apply
Sebastian County intends to apply to run one of the first three facilities. Last Tuesday, the Sebastian County Quorum Court approved a resolution supporting the submission of an application.
The Quorum Court also has voted to appropriate $140,000 to remodel a building in Fort Smith for use as a CSU. The building is owned by Western Arkansas Counseling and Guidance Center, which has agreed to help the county operate the facility if the application is approved.
Hudson said he understands there is no guarantee Sebastian County’s application will be approved, but he said the county has been working on the issue for a long time and “we will have a well-worded application.”
Applications must be submitted to the governor’s office no later than June 30. They are available at: governor.arkansas.gov/request-for-applications-arkansas-act-423