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No prison for mentally ill

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Recent research has shown that Arkansas is unique for its fast-growing prison population. The state also ranks among the lowest in the U.S. for access to mental health care. That's why Governor Hutchinson's 2017 budget allotment for the establishment of three crisis stabilization centers should be applauded. We must get the mentally ill out of our prisons, especially in Arkansas. Not only will it save the state millions of dollars and reduce the looming problem of jail overcrowding, it will finally give the mentally ill in our community a fair chance at recovery.

The proposed crisis stabilization centers would be places with four to 16 beds, where police officers could bring individuals needing emergency medical attention for mental health issues. These centers would be used to stabilize acute episodes through supervision and medication, and would not be available to individuals who have committed violent crimes. They are designed to provide an immediate alternative to emergency rooms and the county jails, and are a ready solution to the shocking fact that prisons remain the No. 1 mental health provider in the country and the state — as well as the most expensive and cost-inefficient one.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center has been working with the governor and the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force to study the impact of policy changes such as crisis stabilization centers, and the evidence is extremely promising. Recent reports estimate that justice reinvestment practices such as crisis centers could save the state $3 million in as little as three years and could lead to significant reductions in recidivism among the mentally ill. Crisis centers also provide a practical solution to overcrowding by connecting the estimated 1,600 incarcerated mentally ill individuals in the state to services in the community that are best suited to their needs. They represent the kind of humane, moral and evidence-based treatment that results in the best outcomes for the mentally ill. Law enforcement and social services agencies in Arkansas are advocating for crisis stabilization centers.

These evidence-based practices have also inspired new federal legislation, such as the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act of 2015. This bill, which is in the House after being approved by the Senate, also advocates for crisis stabilization centers. It does this by awarding states, counties and organizations grants to implement the changes most needed in their area. It also improves communication between agencies to increase access to mental health services for incoming offenders. This unique design of the bill has attracted bipartisan support. If decriminalizing mental illness could do so much for Arkansas, federally mandating this approach to treating mental illness outside of the justice system could be an important step toward permanently altering the criminal justice system in America for the better.

At the very least, investing in the transition to alternative treatment options such as crisis centers is far less expensive than the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to build a new, state-of-the-art prison. This dilemma is looming on the horizon for Arkansas, and hopefully both the state legislature and our congressional delegation will not hesitate about implementing these policies quickly and effectively. The real success of this new approach depends on politicians having faith in the research and adapting policy accordingly. The crisis intervention centers will take some amount of work and patience to establish, especially as they represent a new approach toward treating mental health. Furthermore, three crisis centers that can hold a max of 16 people each is not the single step necessary to initiate the changes the state sorely needs. They represent what is, at best, a small start that will need to be immediately followed by significant further investment for the model to be successful. Ideally, the use of crisis centers will clearly show within the first few years of use that they are a successful approach that is worthy of further investment and development.

Additionally, the success of these crisis centers is dependent on residents having the courage and wisdom to welcome them into their community. The individuals served by these centers are, by design, not violent criminals. They are our neighbors, co-workers, friends and family members, and they deserve the benefit of our compassionate support.

The research is clear: The ultimate payoff these changes will bring is shocking in its scope and simplicity. Adopting this approach gives Arkansas a singular chance to display its unique character and to be ahead of the curve by working not harder, but smarter. Getting the mentally ill out of the state's jails and prisons and into crisis centers will save money, reduce overcrowding and change the lives of thousands of individuals for the better.

Suzanne Bestler of Fayetteville is pursuing her master's degree in social work at the University of Southern California's Virtual Academic Center.

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