CRAIGHEAD COUNTY, AR (KAIT) - Craighead County is working to combat the issue of jail overcrowding due to mental illnesses.
Several leaders in both law enforcement and health care gathered at a workshop Tuesday regarding the issue.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) GAINS Center led the workshop.
"SAMHSA GAINS Center is the entity that provides grants for the courts we have like the mental health diversion program, the veterans diversion program, the juvenile drug court diversion program, the DWI court diversion program, and of course drug court," Prosecuting Attorney for the Second Judicial District Scott Ellington said. "Today was a training with emphasis on providing services to those who suffer from mental illnesses that encounter the criminal justice system."
About 15 organizations were represented at the workshop including St. Bernards, NEA Baptist and Mid-South Health Systems.
During the workshop, members identified the gaps between criminal justice, mental health and substance abuse systems.
Once the gaps were identified, these groups worked on ways they can work together to keep those with mental illnesses out of jail so they are not recycled through the justice system several times.
"We are trying to help those with a mental illness to avoid committing a crime," Ellington said. "There are so many folks who end up doing a life sentence 30 days at a time because they go out and commit some misdemeanor offense and if they are in the criminal justice system they get 30 days in jail and get back on the streets. Then they find themselves back in jail because with their mental illness they do not comply with the law."
Instead, these groups hope to get offenders with mental illnesses the help they need.
"It is meant to help elevate or reduce the encounters that those with mental illnesses have with the criminal justice system," Ellington said. "There are some that we will not ever stop from getting into trouble and breaking the law, but we can try to reduce their encounters and get them to take their medications and go to counseling and things like that."
Ellington said the goal is to have law enforcement first notice that the offender might have a mental illness, then have Mid-South screen the offender.
"These offenders end up coming into the justice system so many times without it being recognized that they have an illness that brought them there,"
Once they are screened, it can then be determined what treatment is necessary whether it be hospitalization, medicine, counseling or one of the diversion programs.
This is not only an issue for those with a mental illness, but it is also a burden on the jails.
"A lot of the jail's time and budget was taken up with those with mental illnesses and the sheriff thought that if we could find a way to get them right into counseling, right into taking their medications, right into these mental health providers quicker than that would reduce the burden on the county jail," Ellington said.
SAMHSA GAINS Center told people in the workshop Craighead County is making quick progress in fixing the gap between mental illness and the criminal justice system.
"We are moving quickly toward where they want us to be with a cross network of all the players and communication," Ellington said.
Ellington said the important thing to remember is the goal is not to let offenders off, but to get those with mental illnesses the help they need.
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