Jail mental illness troubling to Garland County sheriff

In one day, dozens in Garland County await transfer or evaluation, he says

HOT SPRINGS -- The Garland County jail on Wednesday had 29 inmates with mental health issues who were either waiting to be transferred to the Arkansas State Hospital or to be evaluated, which could take up to a year or longer, Garland County Sheriff Mike McCormick said.

"I think that's outrageous and it's a battle we fight every day," McCormick told members of Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club during their weekly luncheon meeting.

It's an issue "I'm greatly troubled by," he said.

He said there are nine inmates with criminal charges pending who have been deemed not fit to proceed who are waiting for admission to the State Hospital, including one who has been incarcerated for 760 days "waiting for a bed."

There are another 20 inmates waiting on their fitness to proceed evaluations, which can take up to a year, he said. He said the state's response is, "'We want your people. We want to get them evaluated. We want to get them treated, but we can't. We have no beds." He said the county has been getting "roughly two beds a year" at the State Hospital.

McCormick said some of the inmates affected are jailed on misdemeanor charges.

"They're being held long in excess of what they would be held if they just pleaded guilty, but they don't have that option once an evaluation is ordered," he said.

The jail is also housing "umpteen state prisoners" who have been convicted and are still waiting for space in the prison, he said.

It's "almost like the same system at the state hospital," he said. "When a bed comes open, we ship one to the state hospital or prison and then the process starts all over again."

He said law enforcement officers are "repeatedly arresting the same people time and time again," and while they all do a great job, "it's impossible to make progress." Less than 20% of the inmates are charged with misdemeanors, with the majority felony defendants either waiting for trial or waiting to go to prison.

"The court system is back-logged and has been for years," McCormick said. "Once again, the reason is we're dealing with the same people, time after time after time. Plea bargains are common. It's a must with the system we have because there's no way everybody will have their day in court. So many, many, many of the cases are plea bargained."

He noted this often involves "violent offenses, not just petty stuff."

"These people are put back out on the street, and guess what? Prison inmates that are paroled out violate on an almost predictable level," he said. "When they get arrested for a parole violation, guess where they go? To the county jail and they're caught back up in the system."

Many of the criminals McCormick has dealt with over his 41 years in law enforcement "have passed away," he said.

"If they haven't, we're still dealing with a lot of them and a lot of their family members, which is interesting when you see the third or the fourth come along, and you arrested his grandfather and his father," McCormick said. "It's like a tradition that continues on."

He said he is excited about new crime initiatives in the state.

"I hope it makes a difference," he said. "It's going to be a lengthy process before it's actually in place and effective. It could easily be five years or 10 years. Who really knows the timeline? So there's hope in the future, but it's rough right now. That's why we're in the situation we're in, that continued revolving door system."

McCormick did share some good news with the Rotary members, noting that overall crime in the unincorporated parts of the county is down 38.8% since 2014. "So we are heading in the direction that we need to go," he said. "It's up and down but the trend is definitely heading down."

He noted violent crime in that same time period is down 48.6% and property crime is down 36.9%.

"Here's something that has not changed that has changed in most parts of the country," he said. "Within our community, there's a tremendous loyalty to the law enforcement people. A lot of people have turned their back on law enforcement, but that's not true in Garland County. That's not true in Hot Springs, and for that, I thank you a lot."

McCormick said the sheriff's office is responsible for patrolling 735 miles in the county with 50 commissioned deputies.

"In today's world, we're having more and more back-to-back calls all the time which limits us as far as routine patrol and crime prevention, but we do the best that we can," he said.

He said deputies work 12-hour shifts, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and "we have a tremendous group of deputies that are very dedicated."

He noted the county also has 17 commissioned deputies in the criminal investigation division that "follow up on major crimes and they stay very busy also."

The job of a law enforcement officer is tough, he said.

"It was tough when I started and it gets tougher every single day, but it is the job that I love and as sheriff of Garland County I do have the best job in Garland County."