As opposing sides in the debate over jail expansions in Northwest Arkansas continue to spar, it seems one particular point inspires some agreement: The best response to mental illness is medical treatment, not criminal incarceration.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates about two in five people in American jails or prisons have a history of mental illness, reflecting a reality that places of incarceration have become de facto providers of mental health services, inadequate as they may be.
It's a message not lost on the people of law enforcement, who readily acknowledge the roles mental illness as well as substance abuse play in driving many criminal behaviors. And while they have to know more about dealing with mental illness than they ever thought they'd have to, they also admit they're not trained enough to realistically handle it in a meaningful and helpful way.
NAMI says its studies show that among incarcerated people with a history of mental illness, about 63 percent do not receive treatment for their affliction while in state or federal prisons.
Mental illness isn't like covid-19. You can't take a home test and determine that you've either got it or you don't. In the criminal justice system, it's not often there's a bright line separating people for struggling with mental illness and those who are simply criminal in their choices.
Consider the complexities of your own emotions and ever-changing mental state. Now, think about how a judge and jury can get inside a defendant's head to ascertain, without reasonable doubt, what role mental illness played in the choices that delivered that individual into a courtroom.
Criminal behaviors deserve punishment. Mental illness cries out for medical treatment. When the scales of justice are in play, the real challenge is deciding how much consideration to give mental illness and what to do about it in terms of punishment.
That's where mental health courts offer a specialized approach more capable than the general judicial system of discerning how the cases of criminal defendants with mental illness can best be adjudicated. In Northwest Arkansas' reality of crowded jails, dealing with a defendant's criminal behaviors while recognizing the impact of mental illness can translate into more substantive treatment of the factors that contribute to an individual's presence before a judge.
Benton County officials say they will pursue creation of a mental health court that would mirror its other specialty courts addressing substance abuse and struggles veterans face. One expected benefit of adding such a court, from a public policy perspective, is a reduction in recidivism. In other words, treat the mental illness effectively and you'll increase the odds that an individual will avoid the behaviors that got him hauled before a judge in the first place.
The fact that only six other of Arkansas' 75 counties have such courts suggests how limited full appreciation of mental illness and its impacts is among state leaders and the judiciary. Indeed, it often takes something like overcrowded jails before local or state officials earnestly begin to consider how medical treatment can play a roll in dispensing with the cases before circuit judges.
Crawford, Sebastian, Pulaski, Craighead, Mississippi and Crittenden counties all deserve kudos for operating their own mental health courts.
Whatever the path to one's revelation, it's really beyond question that mental health courts can play a major role in the improvement of outcomes both for the individuals involved and the law enforcement/judicial agencies charged with managing the population of jails and prisons. It's in the public interest, in other words, to effectively treat mental illness and embrace the fact that doing so is often the most effective approach for everyone involved.
Lest anyone believe mental health courts involve a lack of accountability for one's behaviors, such programs' intensity suggests otherwise. According to the state's court system, those accepted into a mental health court must not include serious felony offenders, including sex offenders; they must have a clinically affirmed mental illness; and they must be approved for admission to the court by a team that includes the judge, prosecutor, the defense attorney, treatment providers, probation officers and law enforcement, as well as the coordinator of mental health court.
According to the courts, the defendant's participation is voluntary. A 14- to 18-month intervention program follows that includes collaborative efforts to provide treatment and "intensive judicial supervision" with a goal that the individual achieves a stabilized condition. They face frequent court appearances, random drug/alcohol testing, group and individual counseling, and intensive community supervision.
The reward -- for the individual and the judicial system -- is a defendant who becomes more capable of realistically dealing with his mental condition and less likely to become entangled with law enforcement and the courts.
Benton County seeks a $550,000, three-year federal grant to start the program, which we hope it will be successful in pursuing. But it's also important for local officials to remember that long-term funding, by local and state government, is an investment in a more humane and responsible judicial system.
The mentally ill need treatment. That never changes.
We applaud those in Benton County who are eager to launch a mental health court. Hopefully, their efforts will lead to success that makes more counties want to follow.