With the help of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a new facility in Sebastian County that has been years in the making was opened Wednesday morning.
Elected officials from all across the state and other guests convened at the Western Arkansas Counseling and Guidance Center campus in Fort Smith for a ribbon cutting to celebrate the opening of the Sebastian County regional crisis stabilization unit.
Sebastian County applied for CSU funding, and was selected for the $1.6 million grant to fund CSU operations in 2017, according to a news release. That year, Hutchinson proposed four CSUs to be funded and opened in Sebastian, Washington, Pulaski and Craighead counties. Each county received $1.6 million to fund the units. Act 423 of 2017 was enacted by the Legislature with enabling legislation to support CSU operations.
Sebastian County Judge David Hudson said a number of years have passed in the process of bringing the facility and program into reality.
"The crisis stabilization unit will provide an option to our law enforcement officers and our criminal justice system to divert the nondangerous and nonviolent with mental illness episodes from booking into county jails to short-term treatment and stability," Hudson said. "This program is based upon best practices implemented in other counties in other states, and is shown to work in reducing recidivism and justice system cost with effective long term outcomes."
The CSU will serve Sebastian, Crawford, Logan, Franklin, Scott and Polk counties and the cities in those counties, the news release states. It will have 16 beds and will be staffed by medical and therapeutic staff.
Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck said the opening of the CSU gives the area ability to take care of those who have mental health issues through no fault of their own. Rather than just arresting these residents for a petty crime, law enforcement now has the opportunity to give them a chance to recover and become good citizens.
"Nationally, and in our state prisons and county jails every day, we have up to one-third of inmates that are jailed for some sort of mental health issue," Hollenbeck said. "Up until this day, law enforcement in Arkansas has had no other option but to arrest and incarcerate these individuals who are having some sort of mental health issue."
Hollenbeck said the recidivism rate in Arkansas is at "extremely high" levels, especially in the River Valley.
"This former practice is costing our taxpayers millions of dollars a year," Hollenbeck said. "It's causing overcrowding at our jails and our state prisons, so does it not make sense to divert these citizens from jail and get them the help so they can become a productive member of our society? Does it not make sense to get them the help for a few days or a few weeks, rather than years in prison? What's cheaper? I think we all know the answer to that."
Hutchinson said the Sebastian County regional CSU is the first CSU to open in Arkansas, making Wednesday even more of a special day. It is also the first integrated system in the United States.
"As was mentioned, there's crisis stabilization units in San Antonio and other places, but we've done this in partnership together, from the state to the local community with our mental providers, and what we're doing is unique. That's why we call it a pilot. But it is exciting to see that Arkansas is doing something that other states will look at and learn from, adapt and we will lead, and this is important for our nation," Hutchinson said.
Prosecuting Attorney Dan Shue, State Rep. Clarke Tucker, Jim West, former CEO of the Counseling and Guidance Center, and Rusti Holwick, current CEO of the Counseling and Guidance Center, spoke at the event as well. Holwick unveiled the name of the CSU as the Sebastian County Five West Crisis Stabilization Unit, which was in honor of the original five people who helped lead the initiative to secure state funding for the facility. Those people are Hudson, Hollenbeck, Shue, West and Circuit Judge Annie Hendricks, the news release states.