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Coalition calls for more resources for diversion programs

A diverse coalition consisting of such groups as the Mental Health Council of Arkansas, the Arkansas Sheriffs' Association and the Association of Arkansas Counties has recently formed to try to find a solution to the pressing problem of overcrowding in state prisons and county jails, something that experts say is costing the state millions of dollars every year.

The coalition, which has yet to officially name itself, attributes much of the problem of overcrowding to the lack of diversion programs in the state for those people struggling with underlying mental health and/or substance abuse issues. 

Specifically, they argue that many of these people, who often have committed no offense, are simply taken to jail because of a lack of options and are otherwise denied access to the level of care that could really make a difference in their lives, keeping them off the street and free from incarceration.

"If we can get them the health care they need, and not enter them into the criminal justice system, they can get jobs and be productive members of society, rather than a burden to the system,” said the Sebastian County Sheriff.

From a purely fiscal perspective, the coalition argues that the creation of diversion programs for both drug addicts and the mentally ill, much like those that are present in 45 other states, could save millions of dollars over the long run and preserve space needed to house violent offenders.

By way of illustration, coalition members point to the success of a program in San Antonio, Texas, where police officers receive crisis intervention training. Specifically, they are taught to take people who are engaged in conduct that could result in an arrest for a low-level offense, but are also otherwise showing signs of substance abuse and/or mental health problems to what is known as a crisis stabilization unit instead of jail.

This unit includes not just treatment, but a mental health court in which a judge has the power to mandate that the person receive follow-up care and access to services as needed.

Statistics show that since the program's launch, San Antonio has successfully diverted a large population of potential prisoners, saving substantial money and even resulting in empty jail beds.

For its part, the coalition has devised preliminary plans calling for the creation of three treatment centers across the state for both the mentally ill and those battling drug addictions, and indicated that it would request funding during the next legislative session.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you agree that diversion programs would help our state address the very serious problem of jail and prison overcrowding?

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