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Washington County criminal justice panel sees need for mental health services

by Tom Sissom | October 29, 2021 at 7:01 a.m.
NWA Democrat-Gazette FILE PHOTO The exterior of the Washington County jail.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Diverting people with mental health problems away from the criminal justice system is a focus of Washington County's Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.

The group met Thursday in a Zoom meeting and discussed ideas including a mental health court, speeding up mental health evaluations for people brought to the county's jail, adding programs in the jail and offering assistance from counseling to housing for those leaving the jail.

The Quorum Court last week approved spending $60,000 to hire a full-time administrator for the panel. County Judge Joseph Wood told the committee the county has done the required advertising for applications and will post the opening on the county's website.

Nick Robbins, director of Returning Home, a nonprofit group working with the county to try and keep people previously incarcerated from reentering the criminal justice system, is co-chairman of the committee. Robbins said the group is working on proposals such as the mental health court to present to the Quorum Court by the end of the year.

Circuit Judge Cristi Beaumont told the committee a diversionary court for people with mental health problems would be similar to the drug court and veterans court programs already operating. Beaumont said the program would need to have caseworkers assigned to the jail to assess detainees and work on plans for them to reenter society without having to go through the court system.

The caseworkers would assess each individual's needs and determine what services are available to assist them. The program would set up appointments with service providers for people approved for participation and would help them with obtaining and using any medication needed, with housing, with paying court fees and fines and with appearing for scheduled court dates.

Beaumont suggested the program could be run under the auspices of one of the district court judges. Most cases seen in circuit court involving people with mental health issues begin in district courts, she said.

Beaumont said there's a mental health court program operating in Craighead County and something similar has been successful in Austin, Texas. The committee discussed sending some members to Jonesboro to observe the Craighead County mental health court program in operation, but no decision was made Thursday.

The committee also discussed the possibility of expanding mental health services at the jail, possibly designating areas for housing and adding space for staff, for education and other mental health programs.

Sheriff Tim Helder said there's no space available now but some space could be made available if the Quorum Court approves a proposed jail expansion.

"If it's anything of scale, it will require some construction," Helder said.

Helder said his office has been discussing having a full-time public defender assigned to the jail with the state Public Defender Commission, but nothing has been decided. He said office space for that use has been identified but there's no space for any large-scale programming or additional office space for staff.

"As far as other office space, we are maxed out," Helder said. "Other space would require some repurposing, expansion or construction."

Beaumont said much of what is being discussed would provide a starting point for people in need of mental health services who have become involved in the criminal justice system.

"We can begin services they can continue after release," Beaumont said.

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Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee

A 2019 study of Washington County’s criminal justice system by the National Center for State Courts recommended the county form the coordinating committee to develop plans and collaborate with the county to help with decision-making. The committee includes judges, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, Quorum Court members, victim support advocates, mental health professionals and community leaders.

Source: Washington County

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