Mental Health & Prison Reform

This brief cost analysis suggests diverting people with mental illness into crisis centers rather than jails could provide better mental-health care and promote public safety at a fraction of the cost of incarceration. The reforms will require new investments in our mental health care system, but those expenses will be far outweighed by the savings from the criminal justice system.

Diversion is far less expensive, more humane, more effective and safer than simply sending people with mental issues to prison. Arkansas has thousands of prisoners with mental health issues. Sending these people to treatment allows the system to focus resources on those who are true threats to society.

The report estimates the savings at close to $140 million each year, with the added benefit of reduced recidivism, reduced criminal behavior in the future, and law enforcement officials capable of focusing attention on true threats to public safety.   

The report projects the costs of one year’s services at a crisis center at $10 million, compared to $150 million for incarceration. In addition, DHS estimates that Medicaid would pay between $2 to $3 Million during the next several years, leaving a net cost to Arkansas of about $7.5 Million annually to provide better, more appropriate services to people with mental illness.

The report bases its conclusions on analysis of costs and outcomes of similar programs in San Antonio, TX; Oklahoma; Georgia; New Mexico; and Oregon. It applies the savings in these states to the current costs of adjudication, incarceration, and treatment for Arkansas’ mentally ill. The report acknowledges that it is only an initial analysis of potential savings and that a deeper study 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.