Sebastian County will receive up to $1.6 million to create a crisis stabilization unit, according to the governor.
County officials had applied for funding to take part in the CSU pilot program, established through Act 423 and approved this year by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Each of the four counties that applied to open a CSU will receive funding from the state to operate a 16-bed facility, Hutchinson announced Friday. Craighead, Pulaski and Washington counties also will receive funding.
“The original plan was to select three counties, but we received four stellar applications, and so I decided to award funding to all four,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “Each of the four counties’ submissions went above and beyond the parameters laid out in the application process, with substantial support from local leadership and the community.”
Sebastian County Sheriff Hollenbeck said he is excited and grateful that Hutchinson found the funding for four stabilization units, not just three. This all came into place for Sebastian County because of a leadership team that included, among others, Circuit Court Judge Annie Hendricks, County Judge David Hudson, Prosecuting Attorney Dan Shue, Jim West of the Western Arkansas Counseling & Guidance Center and Hollenbeck himself.
"We all partnered with the governor's office to make sure that this happened, so we're excited about it," Hollenbeck said. "It's now time to start remodeling an existing building that the guidance center has graciously allowed to us to use, and so the funding, we're hoping that it gets released within the next couple of months and we start the process."
However, Hollenbeck said there will be a significant amount of training for law enforcement officers to do.
"Part of this whole process is to have officers on the street now that are going to be trained on how to recognize people with mental health issues, how to de-escalate problems before they escalate into something worse where somebody can be locked up for a felony, so there's a lot of work to be done, a lot of foundation to be laid, but we're very excited, and we are definitely moving forward with this," Hollenbeck said.
The Sebastian County Quorum Court in June approved a resolution supporting the submission of an application for the funding and previously voted to appropriate $140,000 to remodel a building in Fort Smith for use as a CSU. The building is owned by Western Arkansas Counseling and Guidance Center, which has agreed to help the county operate the facility.
Act 423 was part of Hutchinson’s 2017 legislative agenda and received bipartisan support in both the state Senate and House. Hutchinson signed it into law March 8. Sebastian County officials previously have said that the units would help ease the jail population strain at local facilities.
Hutchinson will commit an additional $1.4 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to support the CSUs, in addition to the $5 million already committed to the project, according to Hutchinson's statement. The additional $1.4 million in funding will go before the Arkansas Legislative Council for final approval.
In 2015, a coalition of groups including the Association of Arkansas Counties, the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association and the Mental Health Council of Arkansas formed a coalition to begin studying ways to divert mentally ill offenders to treatment instead of jail. The coalition sent groups to other states to study their programs and to a national seminar on the issue.
Sebastian County was one of the leaders of the effort in Arkansas. In 2016, the county held a summit on the issue, and officials including Hollenbeck, Hudson and legislators including Rep. Charlotte Douglas, R-Alma, have appeared before legislative panels to advocate for CSUs, as have other advocates.
After hearing their testimony, the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force recommended the creation of CSUs. The governor embraced the idea and included $5 million for a pilot program in his proposed budget for fiscal 2018. The Legislature approved the funding.
CSUs are short-term clinical facilities that provide assessment and treatment services for individuals with behavioral health conditions. A primary goal of the state’s investment in CSUs is to reduce the number of people with mental illness and other behavioral health conditions entering jails or other facilities, such as emergency rooms, not designed to effectively address their underlying behavioral health conditions, Hutchinson's statement says.
CSUs have the potential to improve outcomes for people with acute behavioral health conditions and reduce overall system costs to both the state and counties, including the strain on county jails, Hutchinson adds.
State Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, who chaired the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force and sponsored the legislation that became Act 423, told the Arkansas News Bureau in June that he hopes the program will be expanded in the future to include eight facilities, which advocates have recommended.
“I think it’ll save incarceration costs, which is certainly significant, but probably more significantly, individuals who struggle with mental illness will get the help they need instead of finding themselves in a county jail for disorderly conduct or for disturbing the peace or something that they do while they’re having a mental crisis,” Hutchinson, the governor’s nephew, said at the time.