Alternative sought to house mentally ill prisoners

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette June 19, 2015 by Spencer Willems

LITTLE ROCK -- With state budgets tight and prisons packed beyond capacity, Arkansas could save as much as $140 million a year by investing more in "diversion" programs for mentally ill criminals instead of housing them and treating them in state facilities, according to a study released to legislators Thursday.

Jim Metzger, head of the Little Rock consultant group Histecon Associates, told lawmakers and mental health professionals other states, including Oregon and Oklahoma, have saved money by placing some mentally ill offenders in treatment centers instead of prison cells.

The economist made his comments at a Little Rock meeting of the Behavioral Health Treatment Access Legislative Task Force, which is charged with improving access and service of mental health and other treatments to the state's offenders.

"The difference in cost of putting someone who is mentally ill in prison, which can be quite large ... anywhere from $23,000 to $33,000 a year, is so much more than the cost of a specific treatment for the mental illness or condition that causes the person to have committed some crime," Metzger said. "We're not saying that everyone who is mentally ill and in prison doesn't deserve prison time ... but other states have shown that a large portion of the population who get caught up in that system would really benefit from diversion into a crisis treatment center."

Metzger's report was paid for by the left-leaning organization the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.

The group's executive director, Bill Kopsky, said the savings would be spread among state, city and county budgets, and more study of the idea is warranted.

"It is clear that failing to meet the needs of people with mental illness in an appropriate setting will result in larger drains on the state budget, less humane outcomes for people with mental illness and less public safety," Kopsky said in a statement.

The number of Arkansas prisoners climbed from 14,627 in 2012 to an average of 17,850 last year. Earlier this week, there were about 18,360 inmates in prisons and county jails across the state. Since the state passed stiffer restrictions on probationers and parolees, the number of inmates has climbed sharply.

An attorney with the Department of Human Services, David Sterling, questioned whether the changes recommended by Metzger would actually generate substantial cost savings and lower recidivism rates.

He also questioned whether those with mental illness would stay out of trouble after their treatment ends.

"As soon as they exit from it, they stop taking their medications and so forth and are committing more crimes, then, okay, we might have saved some taxpayer money by diverting them out of the prison population, but are we addressing the crime rate at all?" Sterling said.

Sterling and others said they would want more information about how such a project would operate and how much it would cost in the future.