Gov. Hutchinson: Reduce mental illness in criminal justice system with treatment, not incarceration

Richard King suffers from bipolar disorder. A pastor and Vietnam veteran from Fort Smith, Ark., Richard has undergone treatment for his mental illness for years. But when a stomach illness prevented him from taking his prescribed medication, he found himself on March 11 experiencing a mental health crisis that led to his arrest on a misdemeanor charge.

That’s when things could’ve gone differently.

In most cases in our country, people facing these types of crises would be sent to jail, where they could stay for days without treatment before being released back into the community without a plan for rehabilitation. Instead, 2017 legislation passed in Arkansas gave Richard an alternative that led him back into treatment.

Sebastian County Sheriff’s officers diverted him to the county’s newly opened Crisis Stabilization Unit, a community mental health treatment facility that serves as an alternative to jail for people who have mental illnesses. There, mental health professionals stabilized Richard’s condition and provided the treatment he needed to get him back to his daily routine.

I recently sat down face-to-face with Richard to get a deeper understanding of his story and learn how Arkansas can help more people living with mental illnesses avoid jail and get the treatment they need.

Every year, a disproportionate number of people who have mental illnesses and co-occurring substance addictions are put behind bars. Studies in individual counties have shown that those people spend more time in lock-up than the average person booked into jail and that they return more frequently. This creates a huge burden on taxpayers, leaves our communities at risk, and could exacerbate the mental illnesses with which people are already struggling.

Listening to Richard describe the utter confusion and frustration he felt between the time of his arrest and his diversion to the Crisis Stabilization Unit helped me appreciate the challenges people who have serious mental illnesses face across the country.

Mention “reform” to a group of politicians and it shouldn’t take long before you’re faced with partisan disagreements. However, in Arkansas, we didn’t have the time, nor the luxury, to play politics while our criminal justice system was facing seemingly insurmountable problems.

Last year, Arkansas’s 20 prisons were at capacity. Estimates showed that by 2023, our incarcerated population was expected to reach more than 21,000 people (an increase of nearly 20 percent), with an additional $653 million in spending to accommodate the prison growth. Our probation and parole officers were overwhelmed with large caseloads, preventing them from providing effective supervision critical for maintaining public safety.

In response, a bipartisan group of state and local leaders came together as part of Justice Reinvestment, a federally funded approach that identifies evidence-based policy solutions to create more efficient, effective state corrections systems. The result was the Criminal Justice Efficiency and Safety Act (Act 423), bipartisan legislation that addresses a variety of issues in our system, including establishing the vital crisis stabilization units that got Richard back on track.

The Justice Reinvestment approach allowed Arkansas to become the first state in the country to create a network of crisis stabilization units, enabling our community mental health specialists and law enforcement officers to work together to connect people experiencing mental health crises to the help they need. We also are now required to provide all law enforcement officers with special diversion training to ensure that they have the skills needed to handle these delicate scenarios effectively.

We are now in a position to make meaningful reductions to the number of people who have mental illnesses cycling in and out of our jails, and reinvest cost savings in efforts to keep people convicted of serious crimes off the streets.

There’s far more work to be done, but by prioritizing treatment and rehabilitation, I am optimistic that we can transform the way we view and treat mental illness and, ultimately, create a safer Arkansas and serve as a model for other states.