Across the country, states are creating specialty courts, such as drug courts or mental health courts, that provide treatment-based or rehabilitative steps as an alternative to incarceration. Arkansas has implemented drug courts in several counties, and has a limited number of mental health courts and veterans courts. These specialty court programs should be expanded so that judges in all parts of the state have the option to divert people into rehabilitation and treatment rather than punitive incarceration.
Mental Health Courts
According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, only 10% of Arkansas' population is served by a mental health court. The counties who currently have a mental health court option, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, are Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Greene Mississippi, and Poinsett - whose combined population is only 10% of the population of the state. These courts currently have very limited funding, which restricts the number of individuals who can be diverted into the program. Additionally, there is very little public information available regarding the operations of mental health courts in the state.
In counties without mental health courts, people may undergo a mental health "screening" before being incarcerated, but this screening is often nothing more than a formality. Such an approach to mental health does nothing to address mental illnesses, does nothing to decrease the risk of recidivism, and is much more expensive than a treatment alternative would be, according to a report by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.
Arkansas needs to increase access to mental health courts by creating a fully funded mental health court in every county that is an accessible alternative to incarceration for all individuals who are convicted of a crime. Information on how these courts operate and the treatment options that they offer should be easily accessible online.
Veterans courts provide programs that are specifically tailored to the needs of veterans who are involved with the criminal justice system, including mental health and substance abuse treatment. Arkansas currently has only 3 veterans courts in Fayetteville, Little Rock, and Conway. Veterans courts should be available throughout the state, and all veterans, regardless of the offense they have committed, should be eligible for veterans courts as an alternative to incarceration.
Arkansas has a well-established drug court program that has proven effective in reducing recidivism and in keeping people in their communities, but funding has been cut by over 50% in the last several years. This means that the drug courts that are currently in operation are underfunded and are not able to serve all individuals who might qualify for them. It also means that, although 18 new drug courts have been authorized by the state legislature, they are unable to open due to lack of funding. The General Assembly must fully fund the state's drug court program and ensure that people with drug offenses have the chance to be rehabilitated rather than incarcerated.