Judges and criminal justice reform advocates urged legislators on Wednesday to increase mental health and substance abuse treatment access, whether through implementation of State Question 781 or otherwise.
“I don’t know what the answer is … (but) we need to look at doing something different, I would hope,” Custer County Special District Judge Donna Dirickson told a state House of Representatives interim study.
Specifically, Dirickson was talking about the waits lasting six months to a year for prisoners in the Custer County jail at Arapaho to be transferred to the Oklahoma Forensic Center in Vinita once they’ve been judged mentally incompetent.
The OFC is the only facility in the state where such people can receive the highest level of care and treatment.
Dirickson cited several examples from her jurisdiction, including one man who was “No. 168 on the waiting list to be able to have a bed at Vinita. That’s a really long time for people to wait in jails across our state before they can get a facility that gives them treatment.
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“In Custer County, we don’t have services that come into the jail … to start working with these folks to help them get their competency restored,” Dirickson said. “So they do sit there for a very long time. And that makes things worse.”
Dirickson said one prisoner had to be transferred to the state-run Griffin Memorial Hospital in Norman because he was banging his head against the cell wall and “biting himself to the point (the wounds) were starting to get infected.”
The OFC in Vinita is in the process of adding 80 beds, but Dirickson said ideally the state should add up to three additional facilities around the state. She acknowledged the cost makes that unlikely, but she said the current situation is untenable.
“This is a crisis. And it’s not just a crisis for the defendants,” she said. “It’s a crisis for all of our county jails. … It’s difficult right now for them to find folks to work in the county jail, but it’s compounded when they have to deal with mentally ill people … when their behaviors escalate. (Jail employees) are not trained, they don’t have the knowledge to deal with the types of behaviors they’re seeing.”
LeFlore County Associate District Judge Marion Fry, a former Tulsa County prosecutor, said a “lack of resources” is a huge obstacle to getting people in the justice system the treatment they need.
Fry said mental health facilities in McAlester and Heavener are consistently backlogged, and that the number of people statewide authorized to conduct mental health assessments of justice-involved individuals has effectively dropped from five to three.
Fry recommended consolidating and better utilizing supervision alternatives to incarceration.
Although much of the interim study was dedicated to testimony on mental health, its stated purpose was to get answers on why SQ 781 has never been implemented.
Adopted by voters in 2016, SQ 781 required the Legislature to spend any savings achieved by SQ 780’s reclassification of several nonviolent felonies on mental health, addiction treatment and education.
No money has ever gone into the 781 fund, although some legislators argue the spirit of the mandate has been met with increased appropriations to the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.
The state question, though, specified the money is to go to counties for local programs.
One major reason for the delay in 781 funding has been finding agreement on what, if any, the Department of Corrections has saved. The same issue arose, with figures ranging from $10.9 million to nearly $20 million cited for the most recent year.
Responding to a question, DOC Government Relations Coordinator Justin Wolf said not all of the drop in prison population can be attributed to SQ 780. He also said the drop is mostly among offenders considered the lowest security risks, and therefore the least expensive to maintain.
Wolf said that while the DOC self-funded $42 million in employee pay raises this year, it did not do so with funds that should have gone into the 781 fund.
“I haven’t heard yet of a district attorney who’s gotten rid of prosecutors in response to 780,” Wolf said. “They’re just reallocating those resources to more significant crime. If the Department of Corrections were to get more violent (crime) inmates instead of inmates accused of simple drug possession, even though we might received significantly fewer inmates total … our costs are not going to decrease to the same extent our population is decreasing.”
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