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Ark. OKs Program to Divert People with Mental Illnesses from Jail

Many people in Arkansas jails and prisons have mental-health issues, and state officials have created a program to divert more of them to treatment instead of incarceration. (Getty Images)
Many people in Arkansas jails and prisons have mental-health issues, and state officials have created a program to divert more of them to treatment instead of incarceration. (Getty Images)
June 21, 2017

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - As many as 5,000 people in Arkansas jails and prisons may have mental-health issues, studies show, and state officials are taking steps to change that.

The Arkansas Legislature has approved a bill to provide alternatives to jail for these people, and expand crisis intervention training for law enforcement. Act 423 creates a statewide network of short-term clinical facilities known as crisis-stabilization units.

Kim Arnold, state director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Arkansas, called it a major step in the right direction. She said people in an emotional crisis usually don't get better in jail.

"When we don't have the proper health care available for them," she said, "they end up getting the care in jail, they end up in emergency rooms and they end up in inappropriate types of care."

According to Arnold, the bill funds three 16-bed regional crisis centers, which could be part of an existing mental-health center, a hospital or perhaps a jail. She said the centers will assess individuals, provide treatment and either release them to their families or help them find housing. The goal is to avoid incarceration and keep them from re-offending.

Arnold said her agency also will conduct crisis intervention training around the state for law-enforcement agencies in the next year. The aim is to train at least 20 percent of all Arkansas police officers in identifying mental-health issues, crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques.

The training "teaches police officers how to recognize individuals who have mental health conditions and who may be having an issue," she said, "and then how to better understand that and communicate with that individual at that time."

Arnold said the program also is expected to help ease crowding and cut costs in the state's jails and prisons. A 2015 Arkansas Public Policy Panel study found the cost of incarcerating a person with a mental illness can be up to 20 times more than providing clinical treatment and counseling.

The text of Act 423 is online at arkleg.state.ar.us and the APPP study is at squarespace.com.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - AR