By Jessi Turnure
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Four counties will soon be home to the Natural State’s first mental health crisis centers.
During the first meeting of the Interagency Task Force Thursday, a legislative liaison for Gov. Asa Hutchinson read a letter from him, outlining the state’s intent to establish regional crisis stabilization units in Craighead, Pulaski, Sebastian and Washington counties.
These alternatives to jail will serve low-level offenders with mental illnesses or other behavioral health conditions.
The original project, part of Act 423 passed during the last legislative session, called for three units, totaling $5 million. However, Hutchinson said in his letter when he saw the state received four great applications, he requested an additional $1.4 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to make them all happen.
“I believe that the promise of crisis stabilization units, and their potential to reduce criminalization of those with mental health problems, is more than sufficient to justify our state’s investment,” Hutchinson wrote.
The Arkansas Legislative Council has to approve the governor’s request.
The 16-bed crisis stabilization units will fall under the leadership of the county sheriff’s offices, who will partner with local mental health centers.
Task force members said Craighead County will purchase a former nursing home and partner with Mid-South Health Systems. UAMS will provide a facility for Pulaski County, while Springdale Hospital will house Washington County’s unit. Sebastian County will use the Guidance Center building.
An offender will stay at a unit for up to seven days, under 24/7 care from a mental health team, which includes nurse practitioners, psychiatrists and therapists.
“Being able to recognize that [mental health issue] and deal with that properly, that’s how we divert people, keep them from going to jail and reoffending,” said Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck, who’s worked on this for about four years. “That’s so important.”
Four years from now, Sheriff Hollenbeck hopes to see a reduction in the prison population, which could encourage the state to start up even more units.
The nearly 20-person task force includes every major player in the state’s judicial system, including Arkansas Community Corrections, Arkansas Department of Correction, the Arkansas Parole Board and the attorney general and governor’s offices.
Two state representatives and senators also serve as members. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, was appointed chair.