FORT SMITH -- A new program intended to help relieve crowding at the Sebastian County jail may get a place to call home later this month.
Rusti Holwick, chief executive officer for the Guidance Center in Fort Smith, told the Sebastian County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee at its meeting Tuesday the center will be able to start recruiting, training and hiring staff for a new sobering center after it secures a building to house the program.
Holwick said she, County Judge David Hudson and Steve Hotz, who will become county judge after Hudson's term expires at the end of this year, would look at a modular building belonging to the Fort Smith School District that afternoon to see if it would be appropriate to use.
She confirmed Friday the building would be "more than sufficient." A memorandum and presentation concerning the planned use for the facility and sobering center program will be prepared for the School Board's next meeting Nov. 14. The board will consider approving the donation of the facility.
The sobering center will be a place to which law enforcement could divert intoxicated people who aren't dangerous or violent from the county jail to receive short-term treatment. The jail has had crowding issues for years.
Sebastian County's Quorum Court approved spending $675,300 of the county's American Rescue Plan money Sept. 27 to establish and operate a sobering center as a pilot program via the Guidance Center from Oct. 1 through 2023. Danny Baker, Fort Smith's police chief, has said his department pledged $100,000 to help set up the facility as well.
Hudson wrote in a memo to the Quorum Court the program would be housed in a portable building as a short-term facility. The Quorum Court will review the program and determine whether to continue paying for it from other revenue sources in 2023.
Baker said Tuesday he believes it's important to move forward on the sobering center program quickly to have as much as time as possible to demonstrate success with it before the end of 2023.
"If there are any expenses or costs associated with setting this up, moving this trailer, doing whatever else that has to be done, I'll be able to support that," Baker said.
Shari Cooper, director of communications for the School District, confirmed the School Board will hear about and consider the possible donation of a modular building for the sobering center Nov. 14.
Craig Tecmire, the district's supervisor of purchasing, said the building is a former mobile classroom with a classroom on each side and a bathroom in the middle.
Gunner DeLay, committee chairman, asked Holwick on Tuesday about the target launch date for the sobering center. Holwick said a date will depend on when the Guidance Center has enough staff hired.
Holwick said Friday the Guidance Center would try to time hiring staff with preparing the School District's modular building to be a sobering center should it receive the donation. She expressed hope of having sobering center staff, which will include two people working per shift, hired by the end of January. The length of the shifts will be determined at some point in the future.
The Guidance Center, a nonprofit behavioral health care provider, has staffed and operated the Sebastian County Five West Crisis Stabilization Unit, which has been used to divert those with mental illnesses from jail to treatment in Sebastian, Crawford, Franklin, Logan, Scott and Polk counties since 2018.
The Quorum Court established the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee in August 2017 to find ways to reduce the jail population and improve the justice system.
Aside from the county crisis stabilization unit and sobering center, possible solutions include drug, veterans and mental health courts; alternative sentencing and diversion programs; special accelerated court dockets; electronic monitoring and signature bonds for nonviolent felonies; and a text message notification system for defendants in criminal court cases.
The following is a list of people booked into the Sebastian County jail from 2018 through September 2022 that could’ve been diverted to a sobering center, according to a report the county provided at Tuesday’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee meeting. The specific charges and charge combinations were selected at the recommendation of district court judges in the county.
• Public intoxication only: 1,853
• Public intoxication with disorderly conduct: 284
• Public intoxication with criminal trespass or loitering: 123
• Criminal trespass or loitering only: 740
• Disorderly conduct: 434
Source: Sebastian County