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Oklahoma governor disagrees with AG settlement to ensure timely mental health treatment for inmates

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt delivers his State of the State address Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, in Oklahoma City.
Sue Ogrocki
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt delivers his State of the State address Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond filed a proposed settlement Monday with plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

The agreement is meant to improve the department’s delivery of court-ordered mental health treatment to county jail inmates. But Gov. Kevin Stitt and the Department’s Commissioner Allie Friesen said the settlement “is not in the best interest of the state or the patients the agency serves."

What does the lawsuit and its settlement say?

Four inmates found incompetent to stand trial alleged in a suit — filed in a federal court in Tulsa against the department’s commissioner — they had to wait to receive timely, court-ordered mental health treatment while their cases were stayed. The treatment is called competency restoration treatment, which includes things like medication, education and treatment.

It’s provided at the Oklahoma Forensic Center in Vinita, which is the only department-operated hospital equipped to provide competency restoration treatment in the state. The lawsuit is also against the center’s Interim Executive Director Debbie Moran.

Plaintiffs alleged that while they and other inmates waited to receive care, they were incarcerated in county jails where they received little to no treatment, and their mental health deteriorated. They said these prolonged waiting periods violated their rights under the 14th Amendment, Oklahoma constitution and ADA.

Now, Drummond, who represents the department, said they and other inmates will receive “long-delayed justice” through the brokered settlement.

“Under this proposal, victims and their families will not have to endure interminable delays for their cases to be resolved by the courts,” Drummond said in a news release. “This plan will strengthen the justice system and correct a process that has been fraught with problems."

The proposed agreement, or consent decree, would span five years and require the department to do things like:

  • Reevaluate inmates waiting to receive court-ordered treatment. This evaluation would be performed by a qualified forensic examiner. 
  • Increase the department’s inventory of inpatient forensic beds dedicated to competency restoration treatment. 
  • Develop and implement a continuing education program for Oklahoma Forensic Center staff involved in competency restoration treatment. 
  • Develop and implement a screening program to expedite the evaluation and placement of inmates into appropriate care. 
  • Impose deadlines for performing court-ordered competency evaluations and reevaluations performed by qualified forensic examiners. 
  • Develop and implement a plan for enhanced staffing at the department dedicated to competency restoration treatment, which includes data gathering, reporting and management. 

The department could face escalating fines if deadlines to reduce inmate wait times aren't met.
The federal court must approve the agreements’ details, and the Oklahoma Legislature will also have to approve it once it’s finalized.

What did stakeholders have to say about the settlement?

The settlement says both parties agree the proposed agreement is in the best interest of everyone involved and provides the defendants with tools and framework to improve the delivery of competency evaluations and restoration treatment for inmates.

The Governor’s office disagrees.

Stitt and Department Commissioner Friesen said in a news release Monday the proposed settlement saddles the department and Oklahoma taxpayers with "an uncapped agreement" requiring millions of additional dollars and puts “unreasonable burdens on the agency.”

Stitt said he doesn’t endorse the plan, and he hopes Drummond will amend it.

“The Attorney General is misrepresenting facts. I did not and will never agree to have Oklahomans foot the bill for a bad legal settlement,” Stitt said. “We have to ask why the (attorney general) is forcing a settlement that will result in an immediate win for the plaintiffs’ attorneys at the expense of the Oklahoma taxpayers.”

Friesen said she would rather invest in preventative mental health services and programs to prevent people from making it into the criminal justice system.

“I took this job to transform the behavioral health system in Oklahoma. In order for that to happen, we have to use objective data to guide our decisions and understand the root cause of the problems we face. I am a staunch advocate of wise and purposeful investments,” Friesen said.

The case’s plaintiffs praised the settlement’s announcement in a news release Monday, saying it is a great day for Oklahoma.

“This Consent Decree proves that strong, fact-based leadership, in collaboration with subject-matter experts, can develop solutions to complex problems,” said Paul DeMuro, the plaintiffs’ lead counsel.

Drummond said the settlement could save the state “untold millions of dollars” by encouraging swift process for defendants deemed incompetent to stand trial.

“If this lawsuit proceeds, there is no doubt the State would be facing significant litigation risk that could cost taxpayers dearly,” Drummond said. “This settlement, the result of months of extensive negotiations, will initiate important improvements and fix a broken system that has been a travesty of justice.”

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Jillian Taylor reports on health and related topics for StateImpact Oklahoma.
StateImpact Oklahoma reports on education, health, environment, and the intersection of government and everyday Oklahomans. It's a reporting project and collaboration of KGOU, KOSU, KWGS and KCCU, with broadcasts heard on NPR Member stations.
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