By Jessi Turnure
Nearly two dozen agencies across Arkansas are working together to reduce the state’s prison population by ten percent in six years.
According to the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, Act 423 passed during the last legislative session is expected to lower the state’s prison population by nearly 1,700 inmates and save the state about $290 million by FY2023.
“First, I just want to applaud and recognize everyone who’s been involved,” said Kate Vacanti, a policy analyst for the Council of State Governments, as she kicked off the second meeting of the Act 423 Interagency Task Force Thursday at the state capitol.
The group includes every major player in the state’s judicial system, including Arkansas Community Corrections, Arkansas Department of Correction, the Arkansas Parole Board, the attorney general and governor’s offices, judges, prosecutors and sheriffs.
One of the main ways the task force aims to reduce the recidivism rate is with the implementation of four crisis stabilization units (CSUs) across the state.
At their first meeting, the members approved the alternatives to jail, which will serve low-level offenders with mental illnesses or other behavioral health conditions.
The sites in Sebastian and Craighead counties should open in January. The other two in Pulaski and Washington counties will follow in spring. All four should be fully operational by July 1.
The new law called for three units, totaling $5 million. However, Gov. Asa Hutchinson requested an additional $1.4 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to make them all happen once he saw the state received four great applications.
The task force said the state will provide $1.6 million for each CSU but estimated the units will probably cost closer to $2.3 million to operate.
The group approved Thursday nearly $926,000 in additional spending, mostly reimbursements to the counties for startup costs, including beds, telemedicine equipment, security systems and training for the CSU staff.
The units will have to hire and train all new staff with the exception of Pulaski County, who is partnering with UAMS.
The CSUs must operate for a month before receiving any reimbursement.
About $300,000 of the additional spending will upgrade the Arkansas Crime Information Center (ACIC) database to collect behavioral health information from county jail populations.
Every CSU has a monthly reporting requirement so the state can start to track how many people they serve, how long they stay and why they are there.
The CSUs will also report quarterly on cohorts, a smaller group of offenders with the highest number of arrests, days spent in jail and trips to the ER to prove if the sites help stop the cycle of reoffending.
While the data collecting has just begun, the state has trained nearly 100 law enforcement officers to respond to these types of offenders, with 150 more by the end of the fiscal year.
The 40-hour Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training sessions are provided through the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy (ALETA) with the help of NAMI Arkansas.
“We’re leaps and bounds, I think, in the nation not because of the mandate but because we really want to do the right thing,” Jami Cook, ALETA’s director, told the task force.
Vacanti said her organization found one of the main drivers of prison growth had to do with an increase in parole and probation revocations. The number quadrupled between 2009 and 2015, mostly due to technical violations.
To improve this, ACC established 90 and 180-day sanctions in its residential facilities to respond to these types of violations, which all probation and parole officers have been trained on.
Director Sheila Sharp called it a huge undertaking.
The task force also found inconsistent scheduling of institutional programs prolonged inmates’ stay behind bars.
The parole board, ACC and ADC collaborated on the development of the Arkansas Risk, Readiness and Release Tool (ART) to streamline the referral process for institutional programming and treatment to ensure completion prior to an inmate’s consideration for parole.
The agencies plan to conduct training and pilot the guidelines in the spring.
The task force will also give county jails the tools to screen for behavioral health, substance abuse and risk factors in their inmate populations. Jail administrators will receive training in January.
“Really, the interagency work is extremely impressive,” Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, told the group who voted him chairman. “If we could manage to get Johnny Key [commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education] and Larry Walther [director of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration] on the task force, I think we would have every state agency covered.”
The task force has scheduled six additional CIT training sessions as follows:
- January: Sebastian County
- February: Craighead County
- March: Washington County
- April: ALETA’s campus in Ouachita County
- May: Pulaski County
- July: Jefferson County
The group meets next in February.