Help! they cried

And got thrown in jail

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

IN A civ­i­lized state, those in the mid­dle of a men­tal cri­sis would get im­me­di­ate care be­fore they did harm to them­selves or oth­ers. But for far too long the state of Arkansas has been tak­ing these poor souls not to a place of sanc­tu­ary where they could get treat­ment, but off to jail. Call it the shel­ter of first re­sort.

That kind of state-spon­sored bar­bar­ity should come to a end by this fall as a spe­cial com­mit­tee sifts through the ap­pli­ca­tions for Arkansas’ new, needed and more than wel­come three “cri­sis sta­bi­liza­tion units” to get the men­tally trou­bled im­me­di­ate help in­stead of a jail sen­tence.

At last re­port, four coun­ties have sub­mit­ted ap­pli­ca­tions for the duty and priv­i­lege of hous­ing these pa­tients. The north­west­ern and north­east­ern cor­ners of the state are rep­re­sented in the bid­ding. Se­bas­tian and Pu­laski Coun­ties have stepped for­ward to help, too. These new cen­ters would be 16-bed hos­pi­tals op­er­at­ing 24/7 where peo­ple are trained to take care of the sick in­stead of lock­ing them up.

Let us now praise Gover­nor Asa Hutchin­son for bud­get­ing $5 mil­lion to fund these cen­ters this com­ing fis­cal year and the Leg­is­la­ture for pass­ing Act 423 of 2017 that made this re­form pos­si­ble. But it’ll be mainly up to the tax­pay­ers of the coun­ties in­volved to come through with the money to get these places up and run­ning.

Ne­ces­sity be­ing the mother of in­ven­tion, all kinds of ways have been sug­gested to raise money to op­er­ate these new cen­ters. Some coun­ties would use now empty struc­tures to house this new ser­vice rather than in­vest­ing in brand-new con­struc­tion. There’s no sense, eco­nomic or med­i­cal, in re-in­vent­ing the wheel. While other coun­ties would work to­gether with al­ready ex­ist­ing pro­grams for the men­tally ill. For ex­am­ple, in the very cen­ter of the state, densely pop­u­lated Pu­laski County has a quo­rum court that’s al­ready pledged to pro­vide $1 mil­lion to­ward work­ing with the Univer­sity of Arkansas for Med­i­cal Sciences; the plan is to have post-grad­u­ate stu­dents train for the spe­cial­ized care that men­tal cases re­quire. And these trainees are to be work­ing un­der the watch­ful eyes of UAMS fac­ulty mem­bers. In the north­ern cor­ners of the state, county lead­ers are gear­ing up to help the least among these, as well. As The Book re­quires.

HOW DID all this get started? It hap­pened when some cre­ative types got to­gether to talk about what changes were (and still are) needed in the state’s crim­i­nal-jus­tice sys­tem, and not throw­ing men­tal cases in jail was one of the most ob­vi­ous and press­ing needs. Now it’s be­ing met. The time to sub­mit ap­pli­ca­tions to build these cri­sis cen­ters was short, but who says Arkansans can’t move fast once our at­ten­tion is got, if nec­es­sary by the po­lit­i­cal equiv­a­lent of a two-by-four? At that point, re­al­iza­tion dawns like an ex­plo­sion.

Kelly Eich­ler, the gover­nor’s chief ad­viser when it comes to prob­lems in the crim­i­nal-jus­tice sys­tem, says she was ex­pect­ing not just this wel­come num­ber of ap­pli­ca­tions but even more, like six. But when the first wave of en­thu­si­asm ebbed as coun­ties re­al­ized how much hard work it would take to ad­dress a prob­lem of this mag­ni­tude, only these ap­pli­ca­tions re­mained.

Which ap­pli­ca­tions will in the end be ac­cepted and which re­jected re­mains to be seen. For there’s still many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip. And sure enough, the in­evitable scan­dal is bound to erupt in even the best cho­sen and well-man­aged pro­grams. But if Arkansas con­tin­ues to make haste slowly, de­lib­er­ately and re­spon­si­bly, the same com­bi­na­tion of com­pas­sion and prac­ti­cal­ity be­ing shown in meet­ing this long-sim­mer­ing cri­sis with new cri­sis cen­ters will re­dound to the credit of both po­lit­i­cal par­ties. Not to men­tion all branches of state gov­ern­ment and the tax­pay­ers who pay for it all.

Steady as she goes, Arkansas, be­cause this state has only be­gun to show the rest of the Union how it’s done—whether in ed­u­ca­tion, eco­nomic devel­op­ment, or men­tal health. For one goal does not ex­clude the oth­ers but rather meshes with them. Given union, jus­tice and con­fi­dence, there’s no limit to what Arkansas can ac­com­plish for her peo­ple. And if her own peo­ple don’t build Arkansas, who will?

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