PRISON REFORM REPORT SHOWS BETTER, CHEAPER WAY TO ADDRESS MENTAL HEALTH
Arkansas has an opportunity to address our incarceration crisis by helping people with mental health problems, while saving the state money and making our communities safer.
Many people with mental health issues have nowhere else to go and end up crowding our jails and prisons. Over-representation of those suffering from mental illness in jails has increased over the past several decades due to diminishing mental health services.
“A seasoned officer may know when a disturbance is caused by someone having difficulty with their thinking,” said Nancy Kahanak of Judicial Equality for Mental Illness. “The officer wants to get help for the person, but unfortunately he or she has few choices. The officer can take the citizen to jail or to the Emergency Room; neither is appropriate.”
A recent study commissioned by the Panel suggests diverting people with mental illness into crisis centers rather than jails could provide better mental-health care while freeing up space in overcrowded prisons, saving the state close to $140 million each year.
“Locking up a person in need of mental health services is cruel, counterproductive and often leads to a downward spiral,” Kahanak said. “Diversion is far less expensive, more humane, more effective and safer than simply sending people with mental health issues to prison.”
The reforms will require new investment in our mental health care system, but those expenses will be far outweighed by the savings from the criminal justice system. The study found Arkansas could provide better treatment at 1/20th of the cost of incarceration. Some of the savings could be used to create regional crisis centers.
“Arkansas has thousands of prisoners with mental health issues,” said Panel Executive Director Bill Kopsky. “Sending people to treatment allows the system to focus resources on those who are true threats to society.”
The report bases its conclusions on analysis of costs and outcomes of similar programs in San Antonio, TX; Oklahoma; Georgia; New Mexico; and Oregon. In August, Kahanak visited the San Antonio program with an Arkansas group including a judge, 6 heads of Arkansas mental health centers, the head of the Arkansas Sheriff’s Association and two sheriffs.
“We wanted to see how the San Antonio program has developed because it really is a model,” she said. “Everyone was blown away. It was remarkable.”
The program started with a crisis center and added 14 different services over the years. They have a complex of counseling services, including a “sobering center” where people can sleep off drug or alcohol intoxication.
“That’s a touch point for people to go beyond and start seeking services,” Kahanak said. “They take people where they are and they provide the needed services. It was valuable just to see that this can be done so successfully.”
The Panel presented the report to state legislators looking for ways to reduce the state’s staggering incarceration rate. The study recommends that the state prepare a more detailed cost-benefit analysis of the proposed crisis treatment centers.
“The initial findings are so overwhelmingly positive Arkansas must follow up with more detailed analysis,” Kopsky said. “Lawmakers want to reduce overcrowding without adding more prisons. Crisis centers look like a great way to do it, while also taking better care of people who need help, not punishment.”
“These reforms will save money for the state and municipalities while making our communities safer and enriching the lives of citizens experiencing symptoms of mental illness and relieving families of untold heartbreaks,” Kahanak said. “How often do all of those benefits align?”