Reducing Oklahoma’s prison population means getting serious and smart about how people with addictions and mental illness get treatment, according to state officials and mental health advocates.
“The largest psychiatric hospital in our state is our jails,” said Michael Brose, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Tulsa.
For three years, the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse had been seeking funding for the Smart on Crime plan, which recommends 17 programs spanning the spectrum of the incarceration process.
The goal is to give people access to treatment to avoid arrest, develop alternatives to prison and keep former inmates from re-offending due to addiction or mental health problems.
“We have little bits and pieces here and there, but no real statewide plan,” Brose said. “In Tulsa, we do work together well, but ultimately, this is not just a Tulsa problem. We are Oklahomans, and we need to partner with Oklahoma City and rural areas. We tend to live in our own silos. We have to figure out a way to come together in collaboration with a comprehensive game plan with appropriate funding. Smart on Crime is definitely a model.”
The plan shifts the philosophy about crime from punishment to treatment for people struggling to avoid arrest and for those coming out of jails and prisons.
“There was a movement in the 90s to get tough on crime,” said Terri White, commission for the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse. “I don’t think Oklahomans thought that meant let’s lock up non-violent offenders at a cost of $19,000 a year and not give them treatment. That is a high cost to taxpayers.
“The stigma of mental health and addiction also went along with that, but people now have a better understanding. We know these are diseases of the brain, which is an organ of the body like any other.”
Programs recommended in the Smart on Crime proposal have evidenced-based outcomes. Some are operating on a county-by-county basis, but none have been implemented statewide.
If all the programs were adopted in all 77 counties, the cost would be about $95 million, according to agency estimates.
“Right now, let’s give counties one or two tools in the toolbox,” White said. “Let’s pick from these programs and start investing in them and start getting results.”
The proposal does not include money for treatment while in prison but does include a $2 million request for more specialists helping link inmates being released from prison to treatment resources. Currently, the agency provides three specialists at an annual cost of $120,000.
The emphasis on the pre- and post-prison phases is to avoid adding to the cost of incarceration, which ranges from $11,900 a year at the Altus Community Work Center to $17,138 a year for an Oklahoma City Community Corrections Center.
For men and women, the agency estimates the annual cost at $19,000 for inmates without a mental illness and $23,000 for offenders with a mental illness. The estimates include all DOC-supervised facilities and supervision, said agency officials.
“If we are going to fund treatment, let’s do it before they encounter law enforcement or prison and not wait until we are paying for room and board on top of treatment,” White said. “The outcomes are better.”
At the arrest phase, the agency recommends police training to help identify a person with mental illness, de-escalate a crisis and access mental health professionals. Only Tulsa, Oklahoma and Cleveland counties have any such training, according to the agency.
However, some departments may offer training locally or through the state required training and certification.
It would cost about $500,000 to train all Oklahoma law enforcement officials, according to agency estimates.
Tulsa County has the only program with mental health emergency responders on duty to assist law enforcement, called the Community Outreach Psychiatric Emergency Services (COPES), a program of Family and Children’s Services, according to the agency.
The most visible prison diversion programs have been drug courts, which serve more than 4,000 people in 53 courts in 62 counties, according to the agency. Mental health courts are operating in 14 counties: Tulsa, Oklahoma, Craig, Rogers, Wagoner, Cheorkee, Okmulgee, Creek, Okfuskee, Hughes, Seminole, Pontotoc, Cleveand and Comanche counties.
To expand both of those courts statewide would cost about $14.2 million. Currently, it costs about $22.6 million annually for the courts statewide.If all programs were implemented statewide, by the third year, the $95 million could have been recouped, according to agency and state Senate estimates. Meaning, by year four, savings wouldl be greater than the investment.
“It’s critical when looking at the incarceration rate that we focus on all different parts of the process and what resources we can provide,” White said. “It is better for the person, their families and communities.”