Diverting offenders with mental illness into treatment instead of incarcerating them could save Arkansas $140 million a year, according to a rough estimate in a new report issued Thursday by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.
The report, which was presented Thursday to the Arkansas Behavioral Health Treatment Access Legislative Task Force, said the state would spend about $10 million for treatment as opposed to $150 million for incarceration, with part of that money paid by the federal government.
The report was prepared by James Metzger, economist and president of Little Rock-based HISTECON Associates.
The report acknowledges its own limitations. Kyle Leyenberger, Arkansas Public Policy Panel communications coordinator, said its purpose is to inspire further study.
“Really what we’re calling for with this report is a more detailed report by the state,” he said. “We wanted to invest a little bit and take a look at other states and see if this is something that might work in Arkansas. And what we found was, it looks like it is something, but there is still a lot more research that needs to go into this, like a detailed cost analysis, and that’s what we’re calling for in this report.”
The study came to its $150 million figure by calculating the cost of trying and incarcerating a prisoner at $30,000 per year. It multiplied that figure by an estimate of 5,000 inmates with a mental illness in state, local and juvenile facilities, based on various studies. The Department of Correction’s budget was more than $324 million to house an average of 16,900 prisoners in 2014, the report said.
The study came to the $10 million figure by multiplying the 5,000 inmates by $2,000, which it said would be the initial cost of treatment per patient.
However, it says the 5,000 figure could be conservative, as a Department of Justice study found that more than half of all inmates have a mental health problem, with treatment provided to only a third of prison inmates and one in six jail inmates.
It said diverting mentally ill persons into treatment would have long-term positive results, including helping the mentally ill and allowing law enforcement to focus on higher-risk prisoners.
The report analyzed efforts in San Antonio, Oklahoma, Georgia, New Mexico and Oregon.
It was funded in part by the Brownie W. Ledbetter Action Research Fund.