Hutchinson plans for mentally ill a good start
An editorial from the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette, November 26, 2016
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s got a Republican majority in the state House of Representatives, solidified by this week’s switch of Almyra state Rep. David Hillman from the Democratic Party. That gives the GOP control — at least to whatever extent a party “controls” its members’ votes — of 75 votes in the House, enough to sustain appropriation bills without needing any Democrats. And Hutchinson’s got a 24-member majority in the 35-member state Senate, not quite as strong but still significant.
That will help Hutchinson get much of what he wants in state government, but when the legislative session of the General Assembly starts Jan. 9, the state’s 135 lawmakers will have a lot to say about which parts of state and local government will get funding.
If history is any guide, a governor’s goals don’t always materialize as funded programming, and that may be true as Hutchinson and his fellow Republicans place a priority on at least a $50 million tax cut. Some lawmakers want to see that tax cut grow to $100 million or more.
Hutchinson recently released an outline of his fiscal 2017 budget plan. It’s a $5.48 billion plan, with most of the money going to the State Department of Human Services for Medicaid funding and for tackling the state’s heavy caseload of children in foster care.
Today, we’re focusing on a proposal that adds up to less than 0.1 percent of Hutchinson’s budget plan, but could prove extraordinarily important to the future of Arkansas. It’s been ignored by many political leaders, and we commend Hutchinson for demonstrating leadership on a subject to which many Arkansans don’t much thought.
It’s mental illness. And even more specifically, it’s the challenges of mental illness when it comes to people who have gotten cross ways with law enforcement.
What’s the biggest mental institution in just about every county? To Arkansas’ shame, it most often is the county jail. Sheriffs like Tim Helder in Washington County and Bill Hollenbeck in Sebastian County have long decried the unwieldy numbers of mentally ill inmates their staffs must deal with because there’s no other place for them to go when their illnesses become law-breaking or unsafe behaviors.
For far too long, people who need medical care instead are incarcerated, but law enforcement officers often have few alternatives. Faced with letting go someone who may cause further harm to himself or others, or putting them into a guarded facility where their behavior can be watched and, to some extent, contained, officers book them into the jail. Then jailers — people untrained as medical professionals — must take on the burden of managing people who really need medical care.
Gov. Hutchinson, in his budget, included $5 million for the development of three regional facilities known, at least for now, as crisis stabilization centers. The idea is to create places of four to 16 beds where officers can take people who primarily need medical attention for mental illness. Sometimes, it’s just a question of giving them time to get back on prescribed medications or to let an acute episode pass.
What’s important for lay people to remember is this: Would anyone support placing someone in jail because they have, say, cancer? Or because they suffer from epilepsy? Naturally, people tend to reject such an idea. Mental illness deserves no less consideration. It’s not the individual’s “fault.”
Arkansas probably needs about eight crisis centers, but Hutchinson appears to be taking a “start small” approach. We can appreciate that, because a proposal with a massive price tag would face resistance. It’s not that $5 million is pocket change, but we’re convinced most lawmakers can appreciate the shortage of available options for people facing acute mental episodes within our communities.
Perhaps on a level some will see as more practical, Hutchinson’s proposal will help free up needed space within county jails, space that can be used to put real criminals who need to be behind bars. It can also remove a costly burden on jail staff; inmates suffering from a mental illness can consume a lot of staff time.
Hutchinson’s administration still has a lot of details to figure out, not the least of which is where these three crisis centers will be. We’re hopeful Northwest Arkansas could be home to one of them. The burgeoning population makes it a prime location and its jails have their share of inmates who could benefit from medical attention more than incarceration.
The budget proposal also includes $50,000 to develop and deliver training to every law enforcement officer in the state, strengthening their capacity to interact successfully with neighbors who are going through an acute episode involving mental illness.
The proposal for three crisis stabilization centers is a vital and necessary step to improving the way law enforcement officers engage those suffering from mental illness. It’s absolutely not a complete solution, but it’s the kind of start one can celebrate.
We hope the members of the General Assembly recognize the value of what the governor wants to do.
P.O. Box 4714
Email: Chuck Burklow, president
Latest News & Events
Please join us for a Candlelight Vigil Raising Awareness of Mental Illness Sunday, October 7, 2018 from 6:00 – 7:00 PM – St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 224 East Avenue, Fayetteville, AR ... Read More
Mental Health America in NWAR set the deadline to apply for funding to assist with an innovative program or a research project focused on mental health/mental illness in NWAR. The Wilma Sacks- Mattie... Read More
University of Arkansas nursing students volunteered at the annual mental health vigil Oct. 1 in Fayetteville, lighting candles, ushering guests and distributing m... Read More