The Washington County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee will report to the Court Quorum Jail/Courts/Law Enforcement Committee when that panel meets at 6 p.m. Monday. The committee is studying ways to make the criminal justice system more efficient and responsive to the needs of the community. The committee was formed as part of a Quorum Court effort to find solutions to overcrowding in the county jail that would not require additional space.
Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette
FAYETTEVILLE — A Washington County committee is considering establishing a court program to help people in need of mental health services avoid incarceration.
The county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee discussed a mental health court when the panel met on Thursday. Prosecutor Matt Durrett, the group’s co-chair, said there were several steps before the county could form a mental health court.
“We would need court funding, of course,” Durrett said. “The Court of Quorum would have to approve this. We would need the approval of the Circuit Judges and the State Supreme Court.”
Durrett said committee members spent time observing a mental health court in Sebastian County. Committee members supported the creation of a similar court in Washington County to begin hearing cases of individuals charged with misdemeanors.
Durrett said the group also considered hiring someone to coordinate or expedite the process of integrating people into existing drug court and veterans court programs. He said the typical wait time for a person to be assigned to these courts after an arrest is around 60 days. He said the committee supports the goal of halving that to 30 days.
Jay Cantrell, chief deputy of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, said the diversion courts would provide some relief from overcrowding in the jail, but not in a significant way.
Cantrell said Friday the prison population was 691. The prison has a design capacity of 710 beds and an operational capacity of about 570 inmates due to the need to separate different offenders.
“We keep very few offenses in our current situation,” Cantrell said. “It would be for first-time drug offenders or low-level non-violent offenders. These people are now mostly released on their own recognizance or on bail, so they don’t take up a lot of space. The most important thing with these diversion courts get them the services and treatment they need so they don’t fall into the pattern of repeat offenders.”
The committee was formed to explore alternatives to a proposed prison expansion project. Sheriff Tim Helder presented a $38 million, 600-bed jail expansion plan to the Court of Quorum in 2018. The now-suspended expansion would have been paid for by a temporary sales tax.
The committee includes representatives from law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, mental health professionals and some community representatives.
The justices of the peace said that when the committee was formed they wanted to explore alternatives to prison expansion and a report authorized by the Court of Quorum recommended forming a committee to consider options other than expansion from jail. A $20 million plan to add beds and expand space for booking, medical services, courts, administrative offices and storage in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic is currently being considered by the Court of quorum.
Sarah Moore of Fayetteville is part of the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition, which lobbied the county to seek alternatives to prison expansion. Moore said there are a number of programs identified but not yet implemented that could reduce overcrowding in the prison. She said she would like to see the Quorum Court devote more resources to trial preparation services and other first-line programs.
“We would like to see more energy and attention given to these alternatives,” Moore said.