Richard King, 69, doesn’t remember much about his arrest last year in his hometown of Fort Smith, Ark. When a stomach illness prevented him from taking his prescribed medication for bipolar disorder, Richard experienced a mental health crisis, soon finding himself under arrest for a misdemeanor charge by the first responders dispatched from the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office.
After they realized that Richard required treatment, the sheriff’s office staff diverted him from the county jail to a nearby treatment facility known as a crisis stabilization unit, an alternative to jail that provides psychiatric treatment. At the facility, counselors provided care to help Richard recuperate.
Unfortunately, stories like Richard’s remain far too rare. Every year, a disproportionate number of people who have behavioral health needs — which can include serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and severe chronic depression, or addictions to substances like opioids — cycle in and out of jails, often exacerbating their illnesses and potentially endangering themselves and the communities around them as a result.
The effects of this crisis aren’t contained by the walls of jail facilities. Research shows that people with mental illnesses, who are typically booked on minor charges, experience longer jail terms than people without mental illnesses and have higher rates of return to county lock-up. Those repeated admissions and longer stays burden already strained taxpayer dollars.
There must be collective agreement that our criminal justice system should improve communities, not be a source of harm.
While we can agree that jail sentences aren’t viable treatment options for people who have a mental illness or substance addiction, establishing alternatives to jail time is extremely difficult. There is often poor coordination between state and local agencies, budgets are limited, and many communities have a shortage of qualified behavioral health professionals and treatment facilities.
As governors of Arkansas and North Dakota, we know that these challenges are compounded in rural communities, where resources are scant, geographical distance can be prohibitive, and public transportation is rare.
But those barriers haven’t stopped leaders around the country from coming up with innovative solutions.
In Arkansas, we established the nation’s first network of crisis stabilization units, where law enforcement officers can send people who need mental health care instead of sending them to jail. So far, these units have helped hundreds of people—including Richard King—get the treatment they need to recover and reduce the likelihood of a future arrest.
In North Dakota, we launched Free Through Recovery, a statewide initiative to reduce recidivism and improve health care outcomes by delivering high-quality recovery support services to people on parole and probation. More than 1,000 people have participated to date, working not just toward recovery, but housing, employment, and other needs that can help them lead healthy lives and stay out of incarceration.
Counties in North Dakota and Arkansas have also joined hundreds of other local governments in “Stepping Up,” a national initiative to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jails. These counties’ first priority is to accurately track how many people with behavioral health needs are cycling in and out of their jails.
Most sheriffs will tell you anecdotally that their jails are filled with people who have mental illnesses or substance addictions, but jails rarely have systems in place to monitor the actual numbers. And a county, a state, or our nation as a whole can’t solve any problem if we don’t know exactly what we’re facing.
By participating in this initiative, counties can learn from one another, identify critical gaps within their systems, and create an action plan to reduce the prevalence of mental illness in their jails. With collaborative efforts like these, we are optimistic that we can make our jails serve their intended purpose of maintaining public safety, rather than treating them as de facto psychiatric facilities.
But in order to do that, there must be collective agreement that our criminal justice system should improve communities, not be a source of harm. From the national level to the local level, we must continue to innovate relentlessly and do all we can to help provide people with the support they need to live healthy and productive lives.