Help! they cried
And got thrown in jail
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?