Judge and Sheriff Emphasize Support Services to Reduce Recidivism

Garland County District Court Judge Meredith Switzer
Garland County District Court Judge Meredith Switzer

Healthcare professionals, law enforcement, and a judge gathered to talk about the role that mental health plays in many of the challenges we face today as a society and in the justice system. The panel discussion, which took place at Ouachita Behavioral Health and Wellness in Hot Springs, Arkansas, was hosted by the 100 Families Initiative and Restore Hope.

Garland County District Court Judge Meredith Switzer said she believes people who come to court should be connected with support services so that they can go on to live healthy lives rather than returning to court. 

“It’s all about reducing recidivism,” said Switzer. 

She said the majority of people who appear before her are there because of mental illness, a substance abuse disorder, or a combination of the two. She added many people are struggling because of underlying challenges that are not being adequately addressed. 

“[We need to ask] do you have access to mental health care? If you do have access, what are the obstacles? Is it transportation? It is not the goal of the criminal justice system to kick people while they are down,” said Switzer.

“There are a lot of people who I encounter [in my courtroom] who have a vague mental health diagnosis. Just having a really healthy assessment is sometimes a good first start. And sometimes the first time they ever have the opportunity is in the court. That’s way too late,” said Switzer.

She added that what works traditionally for most people in court in terms of accountability may not work for someone who's experiencing a mental health crisis or who is undergoing mental health treatment.

"[The public often] expects to see jail or probation or the most fundamentally punitive sanctions that you can think of. And really what research tells us and experience tells us is that those sanctions are not effective when you're dealing with segments of the population that suffer from mental illness. So accountability may be having them routinely go to therapy and be accountable for their medications," she explained.

Garland County Sheriff Matthew Cogburn
Garland County Sheriff Matthew Cogburn

Law Enforcement Training and Awareness

Garland County Sheriff Matthew Cogburn said crisis intervention training for police officers has been helpful in giving officers the skills and awareness they need to deescalate tense situations that might result when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis. 

“It makes you aware that things like your body language and tone of voice can say a lot,” said Cogburn.  

According to Cogburn, crisis intervention training for law enforcement has opened up a broader view of the role of police officers.

“Our job is to get people the help they need and not necessarily make it a law enforcement action, like sending a person to jail. Sometimes if you can just let someone vent and talk to you, it goes a really long way.” 

He pointed to a study by the National Justice Institute showing that officers who have training in crisis intervention are less likely to use force.

"And in situations where they're dealing with a mental health crisis and in situations where force is necessary, those officers use lower levels of force," he said.

Cogburn noted there is a delicate balance between protecting the rights of people with mental health conditions and ensuring the safety of the community in moments of crisis if people become a danger to themselves or others.

"We get on scene and depending on the situation, we assess everything. And having that training is essential for recognizing what we're dealing with. It could be a domestic violence situation or we could be dealing with someone who has paranoid schizophrenia and they've hurt their family member, but it wasn't intentional. What we're looking at is what's the most important thing to do here?"

Kristi Stevens, outpatient coordinator at Ouachita Behavioral Health and Wellness
Kristi Stevens, outpatient coordinator at Ouachita Behavioral Health and Wellness

Barriers To Proper Mental Health Care

Kristi Stevens, a licensed clinical social worker and outpatient coordinator at Ouachita Behavioral Health and Wellness, listed some of the challenges she thinks people seeking support tend to face. Stevens said these include limited insurance, no access to healthcare, transportation, housing insecurity, and food insecurity.

“Things like that are all impactful on someone’s mental health. I always go back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you don’t put food in someone’s belly and put a roof over their head, then how are you going to treat their mental health?”

Stevens also emphasized the importance of cultural competency when making an assessment.

"We need to not make assumptions and make sure that we're aware of what the cultural needs might be. We also focus a lot in the initial intake on cultural trauma. Is there anything that you've experienced from a cultural, racial, or ethnic perspective that you consider traumatic?"

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