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Editorial: Time for lawmakers to follow the law and fund State Question 781

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Prison reform (copy)

Oklahoma lawmakers have ignored State Question 781 for six years. It requires the Legislature to send savings from lower prison population to counties for bolstering mental health services.

Ginnie Graham and Bob Doucette ask: Why haven't Oklahoma lawmakers funded State Question 780 and 781? The two revolutionary criminal justice reform measures were approved by voters in 2016. Plus, rural schools will be on November's ballot. What do they mean to a community's identity?

No explanations emerged during last week’s legislative interim study to say why lawmakers have ignored the law. But there are signs that will change in the next session.

In 2016, Oklahoma voters approved State Questions 780 and 781. The measures reclassified some petty drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors to help lessen prison overcrowding and over-incarceration. The initiatives also instructed the Legislature to send money saved by the lower prison population to counties for bolstering mental health programs.

Shifting funds to local mental health services would help prevent criminal behavior and recidivism. Currently, our biggest mental health facilities are our jails and prisons. That is a poor way to keep communities safe and to serve people suffering from brain health disorders.

The state did re-classify those criminal charges, but not a penny has been sent to counties to fulfill the other part of the law. The tab is at about $70 million and climbing, according to testimony citing Office of Management and Enterprises Services.

This was happening while lawmakers cut taxes and accumulated $2.8 billion in surpluses in recent years.

Testimony at the interim study hosted by the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee stated that money ought to have been placed into a SQ 781 fund years ago, according to stories from reporter Randy Krehbiel. Other criminal justice issues discussed included the abysmal lack of mental health services in Oklahoma and absence of a unified data collection system among law enforcement agencies.

By ignoring the funding aspect of those state questions, the reforms as envisioned by Oklahoma voters are not working as intended. Prisons ought to be where the most dangerous criminals serve their time, for public safety and for consequences of serious crimes such as murder, rape and other violent assaults.

For the lower crimes, offenders have benefited from the re-classifications, facing misdemeanors rather than prison time. But without funding SQ 781, those offenders are not getting the treatment and supervision to keep them from re-offending.

Diversion programs don’t work without resources to help their underlying problems that led to the criminal behavior, particularly with brain disorders and trauma leading to unstable mental health.

Summing it up well was Damion Shade, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, “Oklahoma doesn’t exactly have an incarceration crisis. It’s really more accurate to say we have a mental health crisis that we’ve converted to an incarceration crisis.”

Funding SQ 781 potentially improves lives of non-offenders who need mental health and other therapeutic services. Programs helping keep offenders from re-offending could keep others from criminal behavior in the first place.

The goal is to keep the public safe while also reducing the state’s consistently top rankings in prison incarceration.

Elected leaders make a pledge when taking office to uphold the law. SQ 780 and 781 are the law. It’s time for lawmakers to follow it.

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