Editorial: Okla. needs to focus on mental health

Oklahoma absolutely is not doing justice for the thousands of men and women who suffer from mental illness but wind up behind bars

The Oklahoman

OKLAHOMA CITY — The headline on an Oklahoman story published Sunday asked, “With Oklahoma sending so many people with mental illness to prison … Is state failing to do them justice?” The short answer, simply, is yes.

Oklahoma absolutely is not doing justice for the thousands of men and women who suffer from mental illness but wind up behind bars, either in local jails or the state prison system, because the state lacks the sort of community-based treatment that can help keep them from being incarcerated.

As Jaclyn Cosgrove reported Sunday, 57 percent of those in Department of Corrections custody — roughly 16,500 people — have a history of mental illness or exhibit current symptoms. This is to be expected when you consider that Oklahoma's rates of mental health and substance abuse outpace most other states, while at the same time the state spends less per capita on its mental health system than most other states.

Something has to give, and more often than not what results is a trip to jail or prison. Oklahoma now has — and has had, for several years — a prison population that far exceeds the system's capacity.

Cosgrove's story focused on a young man who suffered from mental illness from a young age. Raised by his grandmother after being abandoned by his mother as an infant, the boy received hit-and-miss treatment throughout his life. Now 21, he has spent several years in the state corrections system and presently is an inmate at the medium-security Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington.

The check that taxpayers write each year to house an inmate with mental health needs is about 10 times larger than what it costs the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuses Services to treat someone. Yet Oklahoma does this over and over and over again. Indeed Joseph Harp once had a unit that specifically helped mentally ill inmates deal with prison stress, but it got squeezed out because more beds were needed.

ODMHSAS Director Terri White has talked for years about the need for the state to invest more resources at the front end of the system — on mental health programs that get help to those who need it, especially younger Oklahomans — instead of the back end. Progress has been slow, and it figures to be hampered further in the near term as a result of diminished revenues that have mandated agency cuts.

Budget concerns prompted Gov. Mary Fallin recently to ask lawmakers to make a withdrawal from the state's Rainy Day Fund to help the Department of Corrections. It was a worthwhile request, given the DOC's struggles to keep up with the prison count.

But at some point, policymakers are going to have to understand that Oklahoma's prison crisis is never going to improve if the state doesn't rethink its approach to corrections and really grasp how it's related to mental health.

There has been some movement on this, with the growth of drug courts and mental health courts in the past several years. Yet more are badly needed, particularly mental health courts, which are available in just 16 of Oklahoma's 77 counties.

The issue of mental health and substance abuse is multi-faceted and not easily solved. It will take years to begin to get this battleship turned around. However, it's clear that filling our correctional institutions with an ever-growing population of mentally ill is not the ideal solution.

Copyright 2016 The Oklahoman

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