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Ginnie Graham: What happened to the money that was supposed to go to local mental health programs?
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Ginnie Graham: What happened to the money that was supposed to go to local mental health programs?

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Five years ago, voters sent a clear mandate to the Legislature to give savings from reduced prison populations to county governments for local mental health programs.

Legislators have not allocated one penny; a flagrant violation of their duty to uphold state laws.

After lawmakers refused for years to pass any meaningful criminal justice reforms, voters overwhelming approved State Questions 780 and 781. It reclassified some petty drug and property crimes as misdemeanors and ordered reinvestment of savings from the criminal justice system into mental health services.

Instead, prosecutors and some law enforcement officers kept up the drumbeat against the laws, erroneously blaming various crime trends on them. Legislators have gone along with that, willfully ignoring the law and racking up a tab of at least $50 million.

Kris Steele, former House speaker and executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, has been a leader in pushing to make the state’s criminal justice system more fair, equitable and effective.

“It’s perplexing and mind-boggling we’re still in this situation of the Legislature not appropriating the funds that the people of Oklahoma statutorily directed be reinvested in mental health and treatment services that ultimately addresses the core issues behind the behavior,” Steele said. “But here we are.”

Part of the reforms from the state questions are working.

The prison population is coming down, but the rate is still at No. 3 in the nation. Oklahoma remains at the top in the rate for incarcerating women. The Pardon and Parole Board is recommending more paroles and commutations, moves embraced by Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has approved more releases than any other governor.

That is only half of what’s needed. It makes no sense to keep people out of prison or release prisoners without bolstering resources that address the root causes of criminal behavior. Often those causes are addiction and/or trauma.

In the first year, the reforms are estimated to have reduced felony filings by about 14,000, according to analysis from Open Justice Oklahoma, a project of the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

When the Office of Management and Enterprise Services estimated savings, that’s when it hit a snag. At $63 million, or about 12% of the Department of Corrections’ budget, the former DOC director and lawmakers took issue with the calculations.

The formula was adjusted the following year, and a savings of $27 million was found for the previous 12 months. The Legislature refused that allocation but gave the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services $10 million for its Smart on Crime initiatives.

That is not the same as adhering to the legal mandate to give the savings to county governments.

Before the last legislative session, representatives from OMES, DOC and the Oklahoma Policy Institute met to determine a calculation on which all could agree, Steele said. It resulted in finding an $11 million savings for the previous year.

Still, nothing from the Legislature.

“Everyone felt this was an accurate assessment of the savings,” Steele said. “Ultimately, everyone came together to agree on a formula that they believed was fair.”

The way it is supposed to work starts with OMES determining the amount of savings. Then the Legislature puts that amount in a fund to be sent to counties based on population. The theory goes that more people means more need.

A critical aspect is that decisions on spending should be made by local officials, going through county government. Local control has always been an Oklahoma — and politically conservative — principle.

The design targets services for better efficiency.

For example, Tulsa has a jail full of people in mental health crises, a rising rate of suicide and a significant number of youths needing mental health services. A rural county may be different, perhaps with more older people dealing with isolation and depression.

“Local communities know best where they need to reinvest those dollars,” Steele said. “It’s insulting to think that a local community is not capable of the decision-making to set the priorities of people living in its jurisdiction.”

The funds are not earmarked just for law enforcement, though the goal is crime prevention.

“These funds not only go to people who are justice involved; it goes to the quality of life for all of us. This is something that not only reduces crime and addresses root issues but enhances the quality of life,” Steele said.

“It would be grand if law enforcement who are concerned about jails not being able to provide proper services for those in need of mental health care and substance abuse treatment join us in advocating the Legislature to do the right thing. There is a source of revenue in law that can provide relief.”

Just because lawmakers ignore the law doesn’t make it go away. The savings are adding up retroactively.

Oklahoma history shows this pattern often ending in courtrooms. Neglectful legislatures have forced lawsuits into areas such as foster care, care for people who are developmentally disabled and juvenile detention.

Legislating by court order has been expensive and time-consuming, and it gives power to a select few over the representative governments.

The best approach is to do what voters intended — shift priorities from locking up residents to providing treatment. Treat people who are addicted to substances and in trauma as patients, not criminals.

“We’ll continue to advocate and raise our voices for accountability,” Steele said. “At the end of the day, the Legislature is intentionally not following the will of the people, and there is no reason for not reinvesting those dollars in every county.”

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