I wish the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record wasn't behind a pay wall because the ongoing coverage of the religion-flavored fight for control of Hot Springs government plays out almost daily in its pages. The Hot Springs taliban is the name some have given to the pushy new political order in the resort city.
Back in the news today is the effort by district court judges Ralph Ohm and David Switzer to steer criminal defendants with drug and alcohol problems into rehab. It just so happens that five of the seven rehab programs called into a meeting with the judges about "partnerships" with the court are faith-based. It just so happens that some past defendants believe they've detected a preference in the courts for faith-based programs (Leslie Peacock wrote colorfully about the revival-meeting style court sessions there) and claim to have been offered the choice of jail time when they objected. The judges say they have no religious preferences and Ohm said the push for "partnerships" was "not about being faith-based." He said, "It's about people who have a heart to help hurting people."
The proof will be in practice, of course, and you can't argue with the judges' view that there are a range of issues, including domestic abuse, with deeper mental issues that could benefit from counseling rather than jail time.
Overlaying all this is the push by Tea Partyers (who, in Hot Springs, seem to largely come from the Religious Right end of the spectrum) for a new rehab facility. On top of suspicions about exactly what type of rehab facility the 'baggers have in mind and who'd profit from it, is what normally is a bedrock TP interest — tax dollars.
A letter to the editor in the paper today put it squarely. Wrote R.L. Worley: "Can anyone really trust this tea party group when they say it is so much cheaper to put nonviolent criminals (who break our laws) into a rehab than in jail?"
Facilities, counselors, drugs, nurses and such cost money. Also, a lot of people don't like "coddling" criminals with rehab rather than jail. Gov. Mike Beebe successfully overcame this sentiment with his penal reform legislation, but I don't think we've seen the end of this debate by a long shot as the changes move forward. Addicts relapse. They turn to old habits — burglary is a favorite — to support them. The victims won't find the arguments for rehab over prison particularly persuasive in the heat of the criminal moment.
Worley observed that the Tea Party won a lot of races in Hot Springs because of double-dipping and "good ol' boy" entrenched officials. He warns that the Tea Partyers might get a taste of the same if it overreaches with new spending on pet projects. "No one likes bullies," he wrote. The only hot water in the Spa might not be spring-fed.