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Sebastian County submits mental health court grant application

Times Record - 6/1/2018

June 01--Sebastian County's application to secure funds to establish a mental health court has been completed.

County Judge David Hudson said the county's application for a 80/20 matching grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program was submitted May 25. It was due Tuesday.

In a memo to the Sebastian County Quorum Court, Hudson said the grant is a collaborative approach to establishing a mental health court working closely with Circuit Judge Annie Hendricks, Prosecuting Attorney Dan Shue, Rusti Holwick with the Western Arkansas Counseling and Guidance Center and other potential partners. The grant guidelines allow for up to $750,000 to be requested and administered over a three-year time frame. The 20 percent local match is proposed to be provided by a portion of existing position salaries that will be involved in establishing and administering the mental health court.

For the application, Shue said he needed to draft an abstract, which he described as a kind of summary of the county's concerns and what it wanted to do.

"And then it had a 10 page narrative, which basically kind of fleshed that out, and gave more specifics on ... what are the issues, and of course, the issues of mental illness and issues with opioids co-occurring with mental illness," Shue said. "Because what you get quite often are people will self-medicate, and I can tell you that a lot of our criminal charges are people selling and buying opioids. But in turn, those people are oftentimes mentally ill, and they're ... self-treating with opioids. So those were the issues in that narrative that it kind of spelled out."

Hudson said completing the application was a true collaborative effort. Among other materials, the county also had to have a project timeline and task list.

"So we all collaborated on that to make sure that that flowed and made sense as to how we understood we were approaching the implementation of a mental health court, which is totally new to our county," Hudson said.

Additional people who were involved in completing the application included Sebastian County Comptroller Melissa Sinclair and Sasha Grist and Ashley Garris with the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District, Hudson said.

When asked how a mental health court in Sebastian County would work, Shue said participants will be suggested by either defense attorneys, judges or prosecutors. Sebastian County has many city prosecutors/city attorneys.

"And the Mental Health Specialty Court Act had specific provisions for transferring those cases, and that's why that bill, in my opinion, was necessary for Sebastian County," Shue said. "Those cases (would) be transferred. I envision it like our drug court in that you'll plead in, and upon successful completion, it will be sealed. On the other hand, if you mess up, then you're subject to other terms, other sanctions, and there's at least six months. According to the Mental Health Specialty Court Act, you're going to be in there at least six months."

Shue said at least six months of therapy are necessary to make sure what has been initiated is going to last. In regard to what sort of cases would be transferred to the mental health court, Shue said the vision is it is going to be essentially misdemeanors, as well as certain nonviolent felonies. He does not know how big a Sebastian County mental health court would be.

The vast majority of the funding from the grant is going to be used for counselors and mental health professionals at the Western Arkansas Counseling and Guidance Center, Shue said. He also said he knows there is money for training.

"We want to go and see (a mental health court) functioning, and there's also national training at Park City, Utah," Shue said. "There's a summit there. I'm assuming it's every summer."

Shue said he is going to try to go to the summit in July, although the itinerary has yet to be completed.

Hudson said in regard to training, it is a similar approach that was taken when Sebastian County submitted a grant to implement drug court. It is very helpful to go to other jurisdictions and see these courts in operation as a collaborative team, he said.

"And so the team members come back with that knowledge, and it just helps understand how to implement, so that's a big key to it," Hudson said.

The Mental Health Specialty Court Act of 2017 became law Aug. 1 and aims to reduce recidivism rates using "evidence-based practices of supervision, policies, procedures and practices," a previous Times Record article states. Recidivism is the tendency of a person to reoffend.

Rep. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith, last year pointed out the direct link between jail recidivism rates and the high number of children in Sebastian County who are in the foster care system.

"It's going to take a cultural change," Boyd said in June. "Arguably, the Sebastian County jail is over capacity and, historically, kids have been kept in foster care here longer than any part of the state."

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