FORT SMITH — Sebastian County gave the green light to move forward with a new prison diversion program with help from Covid-19 relief funds and the city.
The Quorum Court, at a special session Tuesday, authorized funds from the American Rescue Plan to be set aside for various projects.
That included $675,300 to establish and operate by 2023 a sobering-up center, a place where law enforcement could divert intoxicated individuals who are not dangerous or violent from the county jail for short-term treatment. The prison has had overcrowding problems for years.
District Judge David Hudson said the proposals, which the Quorum Court approved on Tuesday, would be included in a grants order for it to consider at its regular hearing on Sept. 27.
Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker said his department pledged $100,000 to help set up the sobering-up center through the Fort Smith Guidance Center. The Guidance Center has staffed and operated the Sebastian County Five West Crisis Stabilization Unit since 2018. The unit is a treatment facility where people with mental illnesses are diverted from prison in Sebastian, Crawford, Franklin, Logan, Polk and Scott counties.
“I think that’s just one key to the bigger picture,” Baker said. “It’s not the answer to all the problems we have with prison overcrowding and the problems we have with the criminal justice system, but I think it’s a key component.”
Baker presented statistics of people admitted to the prison from January 2018 to July 2022, who he said could have been transferred to a sobering-up center if there had been one. In 2018, this included 1,221 people arrested on suspicion of public intoxication alone or in connection with disorderly conduct, trespassing or loitering, as well as those arrested for any of these related offences. Total does not include bookings with criminal charges.
Danny Aldridge, Justice of the Peace for District 6, asked Baker how many of the 1,221 inmates lived in Fort Smith compared to other parts of the district. Baker estimated that more than 95% was from Fort Smith, leading Aldridge to question whether the city should allocate more than $100,000 to the sobering center.
Baker said the overall health of the entire county is being impacted by events in Fort Smith, its largest city.
“Most people work and shop in Fort Smith, so they are directly affected by the issues we face,” he said.
Baker noted in material provided in Tuesday’s session package that paying for a sobering center isn’t just about reducing the prison population, it’s about investing in a long-term solution to curb alcohol and drug addiction in the community and to divert people to recovery outside of the criminal justice system.
“Diversion of arrest works when done right,” Baker wrote. “The FSPD has achieved over 40% reductions in incarceration over the past four years without an overall notable increase in crime. To be successful, the diversion must go beyond simply not arresting people. It must have adequate follow-up, time commitment and connection to resources.”
Justices of the Fort Smith District Court Amy Grimes, Wendy Sharum and Sam Terry also spoke out in favor of the sobering center.
Grimes said the judges had noted an increase in clients with mental health problems and substance abuse issues over the years. The sobering-up center could be one piece of a puzzle that could be pieced together with other programs like the County Crisis Stabilization Unit and the Mental Health Specialty Court to help these clients stay out of the criminal justice system.
Hudson wrote in a memo to the Quorum Court that the sobering-up center is scheduled to be established this year and will operate as a pilot program through 2023. The program would be housed as a short-term facility in a trailer near the Crisis Stabilization Department. The Quorum Court will review the program and determine whether it should continue to be funded from other revenue streams in 2023.
The college court voted 11-2 to authorize the $675,300 for the sobering center. Aldridge and Johnny Hobbs, Justices of the Peace for District 1, voted against. The application included $94,380 to fund the program for this year and $580,920 for 2023.
Mental Health Court, other projects
Justices of the Peace also unanimously approved Tuesday spending more than $2.5 million to continue the county’s mental health courts program and expand its capacity through 2025.
The alternative sentencing and jail diversion program was opened by the Quorum Court on January 1, 2021 with a $550,000 grant, according to an overview of the proposal in the hearing material. The grant runs until the end of this year.
The more than $2.5 million covers the cost of two additional county probation officers, an assistant public defender and staff for treatment by the Guidance Center, the summary said. Staffing includes an Assertive Community Treatment Team to support more participants in the program.
District Judge Annie Hendricks, who directs the program, said 10 people completed the program over the course of 18 months. There are currently 63 people on the program rather than being in jail, with Hendricks estimating the program has lost five people.
“You want to be successful,” Hendricks said. “It’s a great program.”
Hendricks said the mental health court needs at least 14 months to complete.
Dan Shue, prosecutor, said the program reduces recidivism in the county, which saves money for the prison, law enforcement and the court system.
The Quorum Court also approved money for other proposals on Tuesday. This included $1.5 million for a project to fix drainage problems at the Ben Geren Park softball complex, $711,750 for four air conditioners for the county courthouse, $285,000 for improvements to the county health department, and $12,285 for a federal examination fee.
Hudson said after the meeting the county had about $1.7 million of its American Rescue Plan money remaining.