FORT SMITH — A three-pronged strategy to decrease the strain on local county jails includes crisis intervention training for police officers, crisis stabilization units and mental health specialty courts.
Electronic monitoring programs for nonviolent misdemeanor offenders are also being used by county jails to decrease both the number of inmates and costs associated with housing inmates.
State Rep. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith, pointed out in a recent phone interview that he and state Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, co-sponsored a bill earlier this year that provides a framework for Arkansas judicial districts to set up a mental health court program.
The Mental Health Specialty Court Act of 2017 becomes law Aug. 1 and aims to reduce recidivism rates using “evidence-based practices of supervision, policies, procedures and practices.” Recidivism is the tendency of a person to reoffend.
Mental health court programs were being done in Craighead and Crittenden counties already, Boyd noted, but the bill gives judicial districts “more structure” for statewide implementation. The courts are not mandated for judicial districts, but encouraged, Boyd added.
A mental health court in Sebastian County would be overseen by Judge Annie Hendricks and Sebastian County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Shue.
The goals of a mental health court program, according to the act, include “Integration of mental health treatment with criminal justice system case processing; use of a nonadversarial approach in which the prosecution and defense promote public safety while protecting the right of a mental health specialty court program participant to due process.”
As a pharmacist, Boyd said he sees the correlation between drug addiction and mental illness quite clearly. If a mental health court program participants has been identified as a user of alcohol or controlled substances, approval for periodic testing of drugs and alcohol at the discretion of the mental health specialty court is included in the act.
Mental health court success is determined by the rate of recidivism of all mental health court program participants, including those who do not graduate from the mental health specialty court program, the act states.
Boyd also pointed out the direct link between jail recidivism rates and the high number of children in Sebastian County who are in the foster care system.
“It’s going to take a cultural change,” Boyd said of the two issues. “Arguably, the Sebastian County jail is over capacity and, historically, kids have been kept in foster care here longer than any part of the state.”
The workload for local Arkansas Department of Health case workers has “snowballed,” he adds, because of more drive time for required sibling visits in far reaches of the state where foster children are also taken. There are not enough foster care homes in Sebastian County to handle the number of children needing a home. This also lends to having less time for the case workers to investigate abuse reports, Boyd added.
As noted in a January Times Record report on the nonprofit group Restore Hope Arkansas Inc., the number of incarcerated people has a negative impact on the state foster care system. Restore Hope CEO Paul Chapman stated in January that more than 700 Sebastian County children were in foster care, and 67 percent of these children had to be taken out of the county because of the overloaded local system.
Bobbi Newsom, supervisor of the Area II for the Arkansas Department of Health’s Division of Children and Family Services, said Friday there are 749 children from Sebastian County in foster care and 1,199 in the seven-county Area II with Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Logan, Scott, Sebastian and Yell counties.
In comparison, Pulaski County, which is the most populated county in the state with about 383,000 people, has 524 children in foster care, Newsom said.
“It speaks a lot to our need,” said Newsom, who also sits on the Sebastian County Restore Hope Alliance Board, which was formed in March.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s budget for the next two fiscal years includes a $26 million increase to DCFS “to meet the needs of our children in foster care and to carry out the reform recommendations from the 2015 Paul Vincent Report,” the governor’s spokesman, J.R. Davis, said in an email.