(The Center Square) – Oklahoma counties have yet to see the fruits of two state questions approved in 2016 that would reclassify some crimes and expand mental health treatment access.
State Question 780 reclassified simple drug possession and low-level property crimes to misdemeanors, making them punishable by fines or jail days instead of prison time. The premise is to treat addiction as a health condition, allowing people who battle an addiction to be treated like patients instead of prisoners.
"Research shows people who engage in low-level property crime often do so to survive or to feed an addiction," Kris Steele, executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM), told The Center Square. "Addressing root causes of anti-social activities reduces criminal activity, increases public safety and creates healthier communities."
State Question 781 builds on that by diverting the funds that would have been used to hold a 780 individual in prison to substance abuse treatment services and mental health care. Steele said even though the state's prison population has decreased from 112% capacity to 88% capacity since 2017, results from 781 funding have not been seen because the legislature has not reinvested the savings.
"Studies by independent bodies have shown anywhere from $10 [million to] $12 million per year in savings accrued as a result of the passage of SQ780," Colleen McCarty, deputy director at Oklahoma Justice Reform, told The Center Square. "The Oklahoma legislature is responsible for making these allocations to the County Community Safety Investment Fund. To date, since 2017, it has not made an allocation."
Instead, lawmakers have directed money to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, citing concerns that counties would not be able to provide adequate services, and ambiguity around how much should be allocated to the Community Safety Investment Fund.
Lack of aid in counties has meant that those who end up in the county jail with mental health or substance abuse issues will be treated by law enforcement rather than receive adequate mental health care.
"The intent of SQ781 is that counties can assess their own needs and means of local control," McCarty said. "If one county has a big meth problem, they should be able to apply funds toward evidence-based treatment for meth addiction. Others may see more prevalent issues with depression and may need to invest in bringing therapists and psychiatrists to their region. The statute was left vague so that the decision-makers on the ground can make the best choices for their populations."
McCarty said that any and all types of mental health care are needed in the criminal justice system. Many people in the system have Complex-PTSD, childhood trauma, and would benefit from ongoing therapy. Others have serious mental health diagnoses that need ongoing supervision and medications.
"There is a significant need (both inside and outside the correctional system) for increased trauma care, appropriate levels of substance abuse treatment, mental health care, and prosocial activities," Steele said. "The expectation for 781 is for counties to have buy-in and responsibility for establishing their substance abuse services and mental health care priorities. It is my hope the legislature will follow the will of the people and reinvest the savings achieved from 780 and enhance access to treatment and mental health services for all Oklahomans."