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It was outstanding news late last week when Gov. Asa Hutchison opted to create four, not three, regional crisis centers for the mentally ill that will give local law enforcement agencies an option other than jail when they have to take someone in need of treatment into custody.

The state Legislature passed Act 423 of 2017 last spring, authorizing the creation of crisis stabilization units in pilot program fashion and allocating $5 million for the effort. Originally, the plan was to start with three units. What seemed like obvious choices for two of the regional facilities were the northeast (around Jonesboro) and central Arkansas (the state capital and surrounding area). It also was a no-brainer that the northwest corner of the state deserved strong consideration, but would it be Fort Smith or somewhere in the Fayetteville-to-Bentonville corridor?

Both of the latter areas have had strong advocacy for the mentally ill and a strong desire to stop incarcerating people who are suffering from acute mental episodes. That includes support from law enforcement agencies, whose officers are the first to acknowledge that jail is the last place some offenders need to be deposited.

Conventional wisdom was that the state would have to pick between a River Valley location and one in Washington County for that third location. Sebastian County has had a long history of leadership when it comes to how the mentally ill are treated, with Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck referring to county jails as the largest mental health centers in the state.

In Northwest Arkansas, advocates like Nancy Kahanak of Fayetteville and the group she founded, Judicial Equality for Mental Illness, have worked hand in hand with lawmakers and Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder to advance the cause. Their work laid the foundation for Gov. Hutchinson's decision that three crisis stabilization centers simply were not enough. The governor announced Thursday he wants to add $1.4 million from the state's "rainy day" fund so Arkansas will get four centers. The funding will require approval from the Arkansas Legislative Council.

The principal is pretty straight forward: People whose mental health crisis contributes to a law enforcement response are not best served by being thrown in the clink. Local jailers have been forced to deal with the challenges of mentally ill inmates for as long as jails have existed, but Arkansas has come around to a greater understanding. Jailer training is inadequate to the task, and incarceration does nothing to get to the root cause of the person's troublesome behaviors.

At a 24-hour-a-day stabilization center, health care workers would be available to immediately begin the process of getting the mental health crisis under control.

Jail space previously occupied by these folks will be open for other offenders whose crimes do not involve, or are at least not caused by, mental illness.

Hutchinson's decision and the support from state lawmakers to start up this system deserves praise. It has long been too easy to simply ignore the presence of mental illness, to avoid the complications involved in trying to treat it. But none of us suggest our public servants should ignore cardiac arrest or someone suffering from dementia. Instead, we anticipate the health crisis will be dealt with. We acknowledge that criminal behaviors sometime aren't born of evil intentions, but of an attack on a person from inside their own minds.

Development of these centers represents a brighter day for all Arkansans.

•••

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton got a lot of political mileage out of playing Robin to Donald Trump's Batman at the White House the other day. The president's trusty sidekick went on show after show to tout the proposed RAISE Act that would rewrite the rules when it comes to granting foreigners legal permanent residency in the United States.

The legislation tackles a sliver of the nation's immigration challenges, but it was enough to get Arkansas' junior senator lots of national airtime. It would set up a points system for awarding green cards -- points for high-skilled professionals, for degrees, for already having a job lined up, for speaking English. It would also cut by half, from more than 1 million, the annual number of people who could gain legal status through the granting of permanent residency.

Some say the proposal is dead on arrival. They're appalled at the reduction in legal immigration and the English requirement. The problem for those folks is they cannot convince millions of Americans that their government has control of any immigration into this country. Forget, for a moment, about whether the number is a million or 500,000. The core issue in Cotton's favor is a great swath of the nation's population who fundamentally, emotionally believe the U.S. has allowed its very sovereignty to be diminished.

Is the English demand necessary? No, but it sure plays well to that crowd. These are the Americans who get frustrated when they go into a Wal-Mart and hear more Spanish than their country's native tongue. I'm not saying that's right. But I am saying it's true. And Trump and Cotton have no qualms about playing to that audience and betting the farm there's enough of them to hold political sway on the issue.

Before anyone dismisses such notions, there's one big piece of evidence to consider: Trump got elected president of the United States.

Commentary on 08/14/2017

Print Headline: What the doctor ordered

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