BY MELANIE BUCK –
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed the Mental Health Crisis Stabilization Centers Bill into law on Tuesday, March 8, 2017, that will establish three regional centers to reduce the incarceration rate of those with mental illness and to increase public safety. Prison overcrowding has long been an issue in Arkansas, and the incarceration of the mentally ill has also long been an issue across many states.
“We have neglected the mental health challenges in our nation for far too long. Through the creation of these stabilization centers, this bill will provide much-needed assistance to those suffering from mental illnesses, and also provide relief to our law enforcement officers who so often have to deal with incidents involving those who need help rather than detention,” stated Hutchinson. He added, “We have too many people incarcerated in Arkansas as a result of mental illness, and while we recognize this need, we must continue working to treat the mentally ill and prevent future criminal behavior.”
Many counties across the state, including Polk County, have tried to find ways to alleviate overcrowding, but housing the state’s inmates puts a strain on all counties. In the case of the incarcerated mentally ill, there aren’t many other options. Polk County Sheriff Scott Sawyer says the bill is a positive move and believes its effects will be seen in the county in the next couple of years.
However, in the meantime, continuing to house the inmates is a must. Sawyer explained, “I have two in the jail right now that are waiting to be transferred to the state hospital, but it’s full and it costs $275 a day. In the new centers, the cost will be $75 a day, and that includes treatment to help them get off of drugs and other issues.”
The governor has committed $5 million to support these facilities, which will provide evaluation and treatment of those suspected by law enforcement officers to be in need of mental health treatment. In the beginning, there will be three or four centers scattered across the state, with each holding 12-15 patients. Sawyer said there would be one in Fort Smith that the county could be able to use if there is room. “We don’t really have enough here to need a center, but at any given time, we may have two or three. If there are centers close by, we will use those.”
To learn how to recognize when a subject may have mental health issues, all law enforcement officers will be trained. The state will sponsor the trainings and Polk County officers will attend crisis intervention classes in Sebastian County.
Although the centers won’t do much to alleviate a full jail in Polk County, Sawyer explained that it will be beneficial in other ways. “If you can get them into counseling and the things they need, it will help us. We spend a majority of our time with mentally unstable people.” One example he gave was a subject that was found unfit to stand trial in October 2016 after being jailed on criminal charges. He needs psychiatric care, with the only current option being the state hospital. However, as they stay full, he remains in the Polk County Detention Center, taking up a bed there. “We can’t cut him loose because he has criminal charges,” said Sawyer. But, they can’t send him anywhere else either. SB136 will give the county another option. “If someone is mentally unstable and someone recognizes it, we can get him in right away,” Sawyer said.
He also said that former Polk County Sheriff Mike Godfrey played a key role in helping the bill get passed. “The Arkansas Sheriff’s Association and Director Mike Godfrey really got behind this bill and really pushed for it. They felt it was really the right thing for Arkansas and I think it will be the right thing for Polk County.”