LITTLE ROCK — As Arkansas looks for ways to continue addressing overcrowding in state prisons and county jails, one idea that has ardent supporters is to create a program for diverting some people with mental-health and substance-abuse issues to treatment instead of jail.

LITTLE ROCK — As Arkansas looks for ways to continue addressing overcrowding in state prisons and county jails, one idea that has ardent supporters is to create a program for diverting some people with mental-health and substance-abuse issues to treatment instead of jail.


"If we can get them the health care they need, and not enter them into the criminal justice system, they can get jobs and be productive members of society, rather than a burden to the system," said Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck. "It’s just smart justice and being conservatively smart with tax dollars in diverting people who don’t need to be in jail. I need room in our jail for bad guys, for violent offenders."


Hollenbeck is working with a recently formed coalition of groups that support a diversion program, including the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association, the Mental Health Council of Arkansas and the Association of Arkansas Counties. The coalition plans to request funding for a program during next year’s fiscal session, which convenes in April.


"Many times people with mental illness end up in our jails because there’s simply no other place for them to go," said Ronnie Baldwin, executive director of the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association. "When you come upon a person that you know needs some mental-health first aid, most of the time they’re just taken to jail when their only crime is to be mentally ill. That’s not a crime — and we’re criminalizing it."


What nearby states are doing


Hollenbeck said 45 states have diversion programs of some kind. In recent weeks, groups of coalition members traveled to San Antonio and Tulsa, Okla., to see how programs are working there, and a trip to Mississippi is planned.


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, such as disturbing the peace or loitering, are trained to take those people instead to a facility known as a crisis stabilization unit for treatment.


The unit is part of a broad array of services that also includes a mental-health court where a judge can assign a person to a stabilization unit for follow-up therapy to ensure the person continues to receive needed services.


According to the website of the Center for Health Care Services in San Antonio, where Texas’ jail diversion program began, the program has diverted more than 17,000 people statewide from jails and emergency rooms, provided training in crisis intervention to more than 2,600 law enforcement officers and more than 250 school police officers and administrators, and save taxpayers more than $50 million.


The Bexar County jail has gone from being overcrowded to having vacant beds since the diversion program started.


"I had read articles where they decreased (jail populations), but I had never read where it brought it down to empty beds," said Bonnie White, CEO of Mid-South Health Systems and chairman of the coalition, which she said has no name because it has been too busy working to decide what to call itself.


The group that traveled to Tulsa toured a facility, located in a converted and expanded former elementary school building, that had 16 beds where people could stay for up to a week and eight recliners where people could stay for just under 24 hours for urgent care.


"This is probably a model that we would like to do in Arkansas," said Steve Newsome, CEO of Counseling Associates in Conway.


Newsome said the coalition would like to propose creating three centers in Arkansas, each in a different region. He said the amount of funding needed is still to be determined, but he guessed it might be about $2.5 million, which he said would be "peanuts" compared to the potential savings.


Mounting costs, offenses


Sheriffs say the savings would not be limited to reducing the number of people jailed; deputies currently have to transport mentally ill inmates all over the state for treatment. Hollenbeck said that so far in 2015 his deputies have made 80 trips for mental-health commitments, which means burning gas, putting wear and tear on vehicles and putting a strain on manpower.


Sheriffs also say the low-level offenses for which people with mental-health and substance-abuse problems are initially arrested are often followed by more serious offenses after they are booked into jail, such as assaults on fellow prisoners or deputies.


"Now you’ve got someone who’s ill, they’ve got no criminal history, they’re scared and defenseless, and maybe they get combative with a deputy because they’re scared, and now they’re facing a felony offense because they assaulted a police officer," said Crawford County Sheriff Ron Brown.


Baxter County Sheriff John Montgomery said that sometimes it may be weeks before a bed at a treatment facility becomes available.


"There’s no beds, so they sit over here and they get in more and more trouble sitting here waiting for a bed to open up," he said.


How common is mental illness in county jails? Hollenbeck said that out of 10,000 prisoners processed this year at the Sebastian County jail, 159 have required psychological visits and 166 have been placed on suicide watch.


Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder said a study conducted about seven years ago found that about 40 percent of prisoners in the county’s jail have been under some type of care for mental illness at some point.


"I’m sure those numbers haven’t changed, unless they’ve gone up," he said.


Constitutional mandate


Mark Whitmore, chief counsel for the Association of Arkansas Counties, said the state is obligated to do more for the mentally ill than it is doing now. He said Article 19, Section 19, of the Arkansas Constitution requires the General Assembly to provide "for the treatment of the insane," and yet a 2009 report by the National Alliance for Mental Illness ranked Arkansas as 50th in the nation in caring for the mentally ill.


"Two of the main things we need in Arkansas are crisis stabilization units and crisis intervention training for law enforcement," Whitmore said.


Newsome and Helder are also members of the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force. Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Benton, co-chairman of the task force, said the idea of a jail diversion program for the mentally ill and people with substance-abuse problems is "very promising."


"There’s no question they work. I think it’s definitely a direction we need to be heading," he said.


Hutchinson said other ideas for criminal-justice reforms will be competing for support, and he doesn’t know what will end up getting funded.


"But this is certainly at the top of my list of options," he said.


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Times Record reporter Justin Bates in Fort Smith contributed to this report.