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Crisis units, training a must for Arkansas

rkansans with mental illness deserve a program that gives law enforcement an option to divert them to treatment versus incarceration. Simply locking up mentally ill people is not productive for the individuals who might need help nor is it beneficial to criminal justice. Un- fortunately, many of these detainees, who did not commit violent crimes, become trapped in the revolving door of the system. Some of them should have never been behind bars and this fact exponen- tially impacts our state’s recidivism rate, which is above 35 percent. A local coalition of the AAC, Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association, the County Judge’s Association of Arkansas, the Mental Health Coun- cil and legislators has set out to educate and advocate for funding and establishment of regional crisis stabilization units in Arkansas along with crisis intervention training of law enforcement officers. We have conducted three regional meetings with legislators, law enforcement (both county and city), mental health profession- als, prosecutors and other community leaders. Our goal is pretty simple, but it involves a lot of moving parts. Ultimately, we aim to begin a statewide program including crisis stabilization units (re- gionally) and crisis training for our officers who would have the option to divert some of the mentally ill they encounter from in- carceration to treatment. We believe this effort better serves Arkan- sas residents, will reduce the recidivism rate, increase public safety, save money and help ensure county jails have bed space and are available to the communities they were intended to serve. Our state’s jail and prison populations will continue to expand,


and we need to address it in several facets. One of those that makes sense to us is to give law enforcement training and a diversion op- tion when encountering mentally ill on the street. Today, Arkansas officers will have no choice but to arrest people who might have benefitted from treatment instead of entering the system. Tis single effort alone won’t solve prison and jail overcrowding in our state, but we feel it is certainly one tangent of the solution and it addresses the human aspect of this crisis. It’s not all about the num- bers. It’s about the people, too. In 2006, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found the majority of state, federal and jail inmates had mental health problems and 15 percent had severe mental illness. Te Arkansas Constitution explicitly provides that “the General Assembly shall provide by law for the support of the institutions for the treatment of the insane.” See Ark. Const. 19 § 19. How we care for those with mental illness in Arkansas is not just a matter of public health; it is an important part of pub- lic safety and it’s the right thing to do. As we all know, it all comes down to funding. So we’re not sure just what the Arkansas General Assembly has an appetite for in regards to funding cri- sis stabilization units and training; however, we are hopeful we can continue the conversation with legislators and leadership and work toward implementing this program in the Natural State. We know it is important to get this ball rolling and we are en- couraged by recent momentum. Arkansas is ranked 50th in the “Report of America’s Health Care

System for Serious Mental Illness” from the National Alliance of Mental Illness (“NAMI”). Arkansas dropped from a “D” to an “F”


between 2006 and 2009, and the 2009 report finds urgent needs for evidence- based practices, crisis services and Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) and diversion. Te U.S. District Court, Eastern

District of Arkansas, Judge G. Tomas Eisele declared that our local and region- al jails should not become our mental hospitals by default; and that it is up to the General Assembly to address needs for services and mental health treatment facilities. See Winters v. Ark. Dept. Health and Human Services, John Selig, et al. 491 F. 3d 933 (8th Cir. 2007). Forty-five states have diversion pro- grams of some fashion, and Ohio law- makers recently approved a new $3 million grant program to ad- dress the mental health needs of offenders in county jails in hopes of reducing jail populations and reducing recidivism. Te Centre Daily Times reported on Nov. 20 that counties and social service agencies in Ohio could use the grants to provide treatment programs in jails and to provide additional treatment once released. Te funding manifested from savings the state gained when it merged its mental health and addiction services agencies in 2013. Ohio also provided $3 million during the past two fiscal years. Ohio officials said the effort is seeded in reducing recidivism

Scott perkins Legislative and Communications Director

and increasing public safety. Te Stepping Up Initiative will also give some of those counties free training and technical assistance as well. Te initiative is a collaboration of the National Association of Counties, the Council of State Governments and the American Psychiatric Foundation. Go to programs-and-initiatives/stepping-initiative for more information. Some Arkansas sheriffs and legislators have visited crisis sta- bilization units in Texas this year and said they were impressed with what that state has done in this arena during the last decade. Estimated expense for a 16-bed crisis unit is about $2 million a year. Of course, every unit is different as some function with less funding because of public-private partnerships in the community whether it is hospitals, shelters or stand-alone facilities. In San Antonio, officers who encounter people with mental- health and substance-abuse issues who are engaging in activity that could lead to a low-level misdemeanor arrest are trained to take those people instead to a facility known as a crisis intervention unit for treatment. In the last several years, the program has diverted more than 17,000 people statewide from jails and emergency rooms, pro- vided training in crisis intervention to more than 2,600 law en- forcement officers and more than 250 school police officers and administrators, and saved taxpayers more than $50 million. Bexar County, Texas, now has empty beds instead of overcrowding. Te state also reduced its recidivism rate from more than 30 percent to less than 6 percent. It’s time we get serious in Arkansas.


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