By Dale Ellis
LITTLE ROCK — On average, the percentage of mentally ill people behind bars is more than three times the percentage of people in the general population with mental illness, a legislative task force was told Thursday.
According to a report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in New York City that was presented to the state Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force, 17 percent of people who are incarcerated have verified mental illnesses.
The task force is searching for answers to prison overcrowding in Arkansas, including alternatives to incarceration for mentally ill people who run afoul of law enforcement. In addition to receiving the council’s report Thursday, the panel heard testimony from Sebastian County Judge David Hudson and Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck.
Hudson said that with jail often the only option for mentally ill people who come into contact with law enforcement, the result is far too many people suffering from mental illness being placed into an environment that only exacerbates their condition.
“People that are incarcerated with mental illness cost more money and stay in jail longer with no good results,” Hudson said.
Hollenbeck said mentally ill inmates wind up staying in jail three times longer on average than inmates who don’t suffer from mental illness.
“We have to ask ourselves, are we doing the right thing, or are we just doing the same thing over and over?” said Hollenbeck, adding that a jail environment generally does not promote a positive outcome for mentally ill inmates.
“Once somebody with mental illness goes to jail, I’m telling you as a sheriff, bad things happen to those people,” he said.
Hudson said a major problem is the lack of appropriate facilities to house mentally ill people, which he said makes jails and prisons responsible for housing and caring for them whether the expertise to do so exists or not.
Mike Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, told the task force that even jurisdictions that have successfully lowered their jail populations still have disproportionate numbers of mentally ill inmates.
He said that in New York City, although the jail population decreased from more than 13,000 in 2005 to fewer than 12,000 in 2012, the number of mentally ill inmates rose from 3,319 to 4,391 in the same period, ballooning from 24 percent of the jail population to 37 percent.
“You won’t find anyone in criminal justice who won’t say mental illness in their jails isn’t a crisis,” he said.
But Thompson said knowing a crisis exists doesn’t guarantee a solution will be found.
“These are the questions all states are wrestling with. Do we look at more hospital beds? Do we look at more crisis centers? Do we need more outpatient care? And the answer they come up with is yes. We’re severely lacking in all of these categories,” he said.
The task force voted to recommend the state convene a summit meeting between state and county officials to come up with affordable recommendations on how to start tackling the problem. Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, c0-chairman of the task force, said he hopes the summit can take place this summer.