By John Moritz
Hospitals, a counseling center and a former nursing home are the locations being pitched to house the state’s first facilities aimed at diverting the mentally ill from jail, according to applications submitted to the state earlier this month.
A special task force created by state law will now have to select three sites from the four applications for new “crisis stabilization units” submitted by county officials, and released to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Monday.
The applications include two regional proposals from the northwest and northeast corners of the state, with support offered from multiple counties, as well as a pair of pitches from Sebastian and Pulaski counties.
The crisis stabilization centers will be 16-bed facilities operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week by health care workers as places where police can take people in the middle of a mental health episode rather than taking them to jail.
The Legislature approved the state’s initial bid to build three centers through Act 423 of 2017. The governor’s budget provided $5 million in funding to operate the centers.
But it will be largely up to the counties to pay for the facilities to get up and running. The state wants the centers open by this fall.
The applications proposed collaborating with existing facilities or refurbishing older buildings rather than constructing entirely new facilities.
In the application from Pulaski County, for which the Quorum Court pledged $1 million, county officials said they would collaborate with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, which would offer “postgraduate trainees” to provide care under the eye of faculty members.
Pulaski County, the state’s most populous, has several potential site locations, according to the application.
Craighead County, as part of a collaborative bid to service 13 counties in northeast Arkansas, offered to purchase a former nursing home on Arkansas 141 in Jonesboro and remodel the building into a crisis center.
The county did not provide cost estimates, but said funding is available to do the work in three months.
A joint bid in Northwest Arkansas by Benton, Washington and Madison counties said a contractor in the area had offered labor at a reduced cost to renovate a 5,000-square-foot facility donated by Northwest Medical Center in Springdale. The application also did not cite specific costs.
In nearby Sebastian County, $140,000 has been appropriated by the Quorum Court to refurbish a building owned by the Western Arkansas Counseling and Guidance Center for use as a crisis center.
While the application window was short — counties had two weeks in June to submit the paperwork — the idea for regional crisis stabilization centers was first raised last year by a task force created to study changes in the criminal justice system.
Kelly Eichler, the governor’s top adviser on criminal justice issues, said she had expected a total of six applications. Other counties bowed out, she said, when officials saw how much work would be involved.
Another task force assembled as a result of Act 423 will make the final decision on which applications are selected.
One of the sponsors of Act 423, state Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said he hoped to be part of the task force’s subcommittee likely to be appointed to review the applications. For that reason, he said he did not assist in the Pulaski County bid.
Tucker said he would be looking for applications that show a commitment toward the purpose of the centers, which he said was to provide an alternative to county jails.
“Situations frequently devolve [in jails], and frankly emergency rooms are not the best places for people who are having a mental health crisis,” Tucker said.
Geographic considerations would likely also be a factor in the decision, Tucker said, noting a desire to have the facilities spread out, but located in larger population centers.
Eichler said a decision on where to award the three centers would likely come next month.