Drug court provisions beefed up, sponsor says

FAYETTEVILLE -- Provisions for greater support for drug courts and mental health cases were put into the governor's prison reform package after the proposal was unveiled Wednesday, the legislation's chief sponsor said late Friday.

Northwest Arkansas lawmakers expressed disappointment the drug and mental health provisions they expected weren't in the package. Money for drug courts was less than expected and mental health provisions weren't there.

These features were in early versions of the package but were removed because lawmakers had concerns ranging from legal language to objections to increasing court fees, sponsor Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Benton, said Friday evening.

Supporters of the proposals including Washington County Drug Court Judge Cristi Beaumont met with lawmakers after the governor unveiled his package Wednesday. Beaumont couldn't be reached for comment late Friday.

"I was one of the ones with concerns," said Hutchinson. "There are still concerns, but she (Beaumont) was able to address enough of them to convince us to put the provisions back."

One of his concerns, for instance, was charging an additional $500 in fees for anyone going through drug court, Hutchinson said. Drug courts allow for an intensive probation with drug testing for those charged with non-violent drug crimes as an alternative to prison. Those charged can ill-afford to pay $500 in additional costs, he said. Beaumont "made a compelling argument that people are in drug courts for a year and that these payments can be spread out to $20 a month, and that they are receiving extensive resources from the state for their probation," he said.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson is Hutchinson's uncle. Sen. Uvalde Lindsey, D-Fayetteville, expressed disappointment earlier Friday afternoon at the governor's proposals Wednesday. He'd predicted an "uphill battle" to get the provisions restored, speaking at a legislator's forum Friday afternoon hosted by the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce. Lindsey said later, after being told of Jeremy Hutchinson's remarks, the was delighted to hear it.

"The governor applauded Senate Bill 148 and told the sponsor that much of it was going to be incorporated into the governor's bill," Lindsey said at the chamber forum. "It was apparently stripped on Wednesday."

SB 148 by Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, would have allowed drug courts to assess up to $500 in new court fees per person going through the program to help pay for both the drug treatment and testing for drug offenses and for mental health crisis intervention. The goal was to reduce the number of people with drug addiction and mental health issues from going to prison.

"A 25 percent reduction in the number of people in prison would save $400 million," Lindsey said at the forum.

After the forum, Lindsey said there were objections among the governor's staff and senators to wording in the drug and mental health provisions and to charging more fees on those receiving treatment, who would have difficulty bearing the cost. No bill drawing upon tax revenue will get the needed support, however, he said.

In other issues at the forum, Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said his bill to declare certain cancers work-related for firemen, which would entitle their survivors to benefits, will be brought before the House State Agencies committee Wednesday. Most concerns of opponents of House Bill 1274 have been addressed, he said. The bill was inspired by the death of Northwest Arkansas firefighter Bud Planchon.

Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, will have a special order of business before the House Public Health Committee for his bill on nutrient trading for wastewater. A special order of business is a pre-arranged review of a bill by a committee so those interested will know what day the bill will be considered and can comment upon it.

HB 1067 would allow wastewater treatment plants to comply with environmental regulations by, for instance, restoring and replanting eroded areas along streams. These measures can be more effective and far less expensive at restoring overall water quality than increasingly stringent controls on emmissions at wastewater plants, Collins said.

NW News on 02/21/2015