Editor’s note: While the following has a Faulkner County orientation, we thought it was an interesting approach to a problem in the 20th Judical District, which includes Van Buren County.

In an effort to combat jail overcrowding and to prevent recidivism, District Judge Chris Carnahan started a program that offers mental health services in lieu of a bond payment.

“I’ve found, since I became a judge, that we typically have several persons that are in need of mental health treatment who have allegedly committed low-level crimes. Many are homeless or unemployed, [and] they are often without means of paying the standard minimum bond required to secure their presence for trial,” Carnahan said.

Mental health screening is now available to nonviolent offenders charged in Conway and Faulkner County district courts with help from the Harbor House and with support from the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office.

Individuals who are screened and accepted by the Harbor House now have the opportunity to undergo mental health treatment instead of having to pay a bond to avoid jail time while awaiting adjudication. While the Harbor House is a facility that serves women, the mental health program also extends to male offenders, Division II Head District Court Clerk Holly Beck said.

Ensuring residents suffering with mental illnesses receive treatment is a better option from simply locking up accused offenders, Carnahan said.

“I’m willing to allow properly screened individuals to get professional medical and psychiatric treatment for themselves instead of taking up jail space,” he said.

Faulkner County Sheriff Tim Ryals and other jail staff administrators support the initiative.

“Judge Carnahan’s partnership with Harbor House will be a great benefit to those who are in need of the services provided, as well as offer a method of reducing the jail’s population,” FCSO spokesman Erinn Stone on behalf of sheriff’s office and Faulkner County Detention Center administrators. “We have seen a correlation between recidivism, or repeat offenders, and mental health. The trend is not only occurring locally, but statewide and nationally.”

By providing this resource to county residents, FCSO officials said they hope residents will receive services that were previously unavailable to them that will help better their lives.

“Gov. Asa Hutchinson started a pilot program with the Crisis Stabilization Units, but their program leaves a gap as the CSUs are unable to accept a person with criminal charges,” Stone said. “This new partnership with Harbor House will allow an arrestee to be connected to valuable resources that will hopefully break the cycle.”

The district court program does not affect an individual’s pending case. Instead, the defendant posts “a signature bond,” mandating they remain under the Harbor House’s care, or its referral network’s care. Should an accused offender violate the agreement, they would return to jail, Carnahan said.

“This program does not affect the potential punishment if a defendant is found guilty, because I believe that competent people are responsible for their actions,” Carnahan said. “It does mean that we are addressing mental health while aiding Sheriff Ryals with overcrowding based solely on a pretrial accusation.”

The mental health program extends to all those accused of a nonviolent, misdemeanor offense, such as a public intoxication, criminal trespass or disorderly conduct charge.

The district judge said he believes the program will have a strong impact across the county. Knowing that some individuals may not have insurance to help cover treatment costs, Carnahan said Harbor House representatives would be able to offer some relief for those in need.

“Many of the folks I know will be touched by this pilot program are without insurance or a provider,” he said. “Harbour House will help get that lined up and also help identify persons who may qualify for reduced cost of services.”

The court will hold monthly review sessions for each individual who posts the mental health signature bond to evaluate their progress.

Officials said the review process will comply with HIPPA regulations.

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