BENTONVILLE -- Benton County officials hope to start a specialty court program to better support those suffering from mental health issues.
Benton County's justices of the peace unanimously approved a resolution last week allowing Michelle Barrett, who coordinates the county's specialty courts, to apply for a grant that would pay for an adult mental health court. The mental health court would coincide with the county's drug and veterans courts, Barrett said.
"The addition of a mental health court to our list of specialty courts in Benton County means serving more residents with increased vulnerabilities who come into contact with the criminal justice system, as well as increasing public safety and decreasing recidivism," Barrett said.
Pulaski, Sebastian, Craighead, Crittenden and Mississippi counties are other counties in the state that have mental health courts, she said.
Benton County Circuit Judge Tom Smith presides over the county's veteran and drug courts. Smith also would preside over the mental health court, Barrett said.
"He's very passionate about that part of his job," she said of Smith.
Smith said establishing a mental health court is important because mental health is a factor in many criminal cases. Working cases where mental health is truly a factor takes an intense type of supervision and treatment and mental health courts can best help defendants where such treatment is warranted, he said.
Mental health court would not be open to those accused of murder, rape and other serious violent crimes, Barrett said.
The grant would be from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance. The county could receive $100,000 for the first year and $225,000 both of the following two years.
The money would be used to pay for initial services and assessments, along with a public defender position, Barrett said. The deputy prosecutor assigned to specialty courts would also work with the mental health court, she said.
The grant must be submitted by March 28. Barrett expects it to take six months before she knows whether the county will receive the grant.
The jail had 716 inmates as of Monday morning, according to the Benton County Sheriff's Office's website. The jail has 669 beds, but inmates must be segregated by different categories. Sheriff Shawn Holloway has said ideally the jail should be holding no more than 535 people.
There are at least 126 detainees with mental health issues in the Benton County Jail, Barrett said. She expects the mental health court could handle up to 20 participants at a time. She said it's important to start small in order not to overrun the court in the beginning.
Barrett said the court may free up some beds in the crowded jail.
Sarah Moore is executive director of the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition. The group opposes jail expansion in Benton and Washington counties.
Moore said the group supports the pursuit of mental health court in Northwest Arkansas and encourages the exploration of other diversions that focus on healing, addressing trauma and generational poverty, and supporting families so they can thrive. She said it will make the community safer.
Specialty courts like mental health court focus on helping and healing the individual instead of only punitive measures, Moore said. She said a mental health court recognizes there is a health condition that must be addressed and the individual must be appropriately supported in order to avoid further trouble with the law.
"Stepping up one step and investing in these same community supports for mental health needs as a preventative to criminalizing those in need of mental health help would be preferred in the longer term in order to keep individuals from ever entering the criminal system to begin with," Moore said. "No one should have to enter the courts system in order to receive needed mental health services."
Justice of the Peace Jeff Dunn asked Barrett whether there would be places where people could be sent for treatment.
"Are we setting up a court where we will have no places to send people?" he asked.
Barrett said one of the first tasks would be setting up insurance for all the participants since almost all insurance plans include some co-pay for mental health treatment.
She said the court will still have the option of placing participants in the Crisis Stabilization Unit in Washington County.
Barrett does not expect the court to start until 2024 since the Bureau of Justice Assistance must approve the plan if the county gets the grant.
Justice of the Peace Bethany Rosenbaum asked Barrett what happens after the grant ends. Barrett said they can apply for the same grant or a different grant to continue to help fund the court. Barrett said there may be a time when she asks the Quorum Court for money, but she plans to seek alternatives before requesting money from the court.
Participants in the specialty courts pay $150 each. The money is used for office supplies and could be used for some services, she said. Barrett said there's about $40,000 in the account.
Justice of the Peace Joel Jones, chairman of the Finance Committee, said there have been times the Quorum Court assisted the specialty courts because of their benefit to people and the county.
Benton County Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith said alternative sentencing is an important aspect of their approach to public safety.
"Much like a drug court in relation to substance abuse, the goal of a mental health court is to identify defendants whose criminal acts primarily resulted from a mental health issue," Smith said. "By offering a different track to these offenders, my hope is that both the community and the offender will benefit. No program is ever a cure all, but I hope that this program will be a part of the solution going forward."
Mental health court eligibility
To be eligible for a mental health court, a person must:
Be an adult charged with a criminal offense, but not a serious felony involving violence as defined in A.C.A.§5-4-501 (c)(2);
Not have a previous conviction or pending charge for a felony that would require the person to register as a sex offender;
Have a mental health disorder and be identified as clinically appropriate as determined by a validated clinical assessment tool;
Be identified as high-risk/high-need as determined by a validated risk-need assessment tool;
Be approved for admission by the mental health court team.
Source: Arkansas Judiciary