Washington County officials study mental health court

Crisis cells

Arkansas opened four 16-bed Crisis Stabilization Units in a pilot program through June 2021. The Sebastian County Crisis Unit at Fort Smith opened in March 2018. The Pulaski County unit in Little Rock opened in August 2018. Northwest Arkansas unit in Fayetteville opened. in June 2019, and the Craighead County unit in Jonesboro opened in October 2019. The state paid for unit operating costs through June 2021 while evaluating the effectiveness of the program.

Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette

FAYETTEVILLE — A new diversion court being considered for Washington County could provide a link to services needed to help people with mental health issues avoid incarceration, members of a county panel said Friday.

The Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee discussed a mental health court, similar to drug court programs, available to people arrested for crimes, but who have identifiable mental health issues that can be treated in a supervised setting. Some members of the group participated in a Zoom meeting with Craighead County officials to discuss the Mental Health Court already operating in Jonesboro.

“It was very well handled,” prosecutor Matt Durrett said of the information presented during the videoconference with Jonesboro Mental Health Court officials. “It looked fantastic.”

Dr. Laura Tyler of Arisa Health said the Jonesboro Mental Health Court has been operating for more than 10 years. Tyler said Jonesboro officials have provided reports on their operations, including the court’s budget, for Washington County to review.

Nick Robbins, co-chair of the committee, said he was impressed with the way the court maintained a positive atmosphere for participants and also with the new technologies used. Robbins said the forensic program monitors participants and works to prevent them from using drugs rather than focusing on punishing them for their failings.

“I was impressed with the emphasis on ‘clean time,'” Robbins said, noting that the court uses “sweat patches” to track the level of drugs in a participant’s system. “They are focused on their success.”

The committee was formed to explore alternatives to a proposed prison expansion project. Sheriff Tim Helder presented a $38 million, 600-bed prison expansion plan to the Court of Quorum in 2018. The now-suspended expansion would have been funded by a temporary sales tax.

The committee includes representatives from law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, mental health professionals and some community representatives.

A $20 million plan adding 232 beds and expanding space for inmate isolation and quarantine, booking, medical services, courts, administrative offices and storage in the wake of the covid pandemic -19 is currently being considered by the Quorum Court.

The panel also heard Friday that the Northwest Arkansas Crisis Stabilization Unit could open in June.

Kristen McAllister is a member of the committee and was facility director for Ozark Guidance when it opened in June 2019. She was retained by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to fill the same position when it reopened. Washington County and UAMS agreed to a contract for UAMS to operate the facility in January.

McAllister told the panel that UAMS is still hiring the personnel needed to operate the facility.

The unit closed last year after Ozark Guidance said the company, a nonprofit group, could not absorb a $43,000-a-month funding cut and continue to operate the unit. The unit closed on June 30 after the cuts, from $133,000 a month to $90,000, were announced by the state in May.

The 16-bed facility is operated as an alternative to prison. Participation is voluntary for those treated, who are typically accused of creating disorder, intrusion or other disruptive behavior, law enforcement officials said.

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