© 2022 KGOU
News and Music for Oklahoma
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Only 16 Of Oklahoma's 77 Counties Have Mental Health Courts


If a resident has a serious mental illness and gets arrested for a nonviolent crime, whether he goes to prison or gets enrolled in a diversion program largely depends on where they live.

Only 16 of Oklahoma's 77 counties have mental health courts, prison diversion programs that provide treatment to nonviolent offenders with serious mental illnesses. Another 17 counties have requested to add these courts, but that would take additional state dollars.

These courts have seen success, reporting that among their participants, they've had a 79 percent reduction in jail days; 92 percent reduction in arrests; 81 percent reduction in unemployment; and 64 percent fewer inpatient treatment days, according to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Terri White, the state's mental health commissioner, told a group of lawmakers recently that specialty courts, such as drug and mental health courts, save the state thousands of dollars — but there are hardly enough.

Oklahoma also has one of the most successful drug court programs — for those lucky enough to get a spot, White said.

"Every day we have people going to prison because there are no slots left in their drug court," White said during a Senate budget hearing at the Capitol.

Oklahoma has the second-highest rate in the nation of adults with serious mental illnesses, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Meanwhile, the state spends $53.05 per capita to provide mental health services, below the national average of $120.56, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Recently, White told lawmakers that the mental health department is requesting $141 million in state-appropriated dollars for the coming fiscal year. The largest chunk of that request is the "Smart on Crime" initiative, which would cost $96 million to fully implement.

The "Smart on Crime" funding would create evidence-based programs that divert nonviolent offenders with mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders from the criminal justice system, according to the department.

Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates per capita in the nation. An estimated 12,000 of the 25,000 inmates in Oklahoma have a history of or are currently showing symptoms of serious mental illness.

Implementation of the "Smart on Crime" proposal, over a five-year period, would result in an 11,200 reduction to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections' inmate population, a $233 million net gain cost savings in Oklahoma and a $123 million annual cost savings for every year beyond the initial five years, according to an Oklahoma Senate staff analysis.

Over the past three years, the state's mental health department has received about $10 million to implement "Smart on Crime." That included $645,000 to maintain 174 drug court slots.

The department tracked 670 drug court graduates over a three-year period, using data from the Oklahoma Tax Commission and Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. That analysis showed that the drug court graduates' improved employment status after graduation resulted in $2 million in taxes paid to the state.

If those Oklahomans had gone to prison, it would have cost $35 million, White said.

White called the funding for the "Smart on Crime" initiative "the most important request" that the department has.

"Otherwise we will be broke funding the consequences through the Department of Corrections," White said.


KGOU produces journalism in the public interest, essential to an informed electorate. Help support informative, in-depth journalism with a donation online, or contact our Membership department.

More News
Support nonprofit, public service journalism you trust. Give now.