Seven years ago Oklahoma voters demanded greater public investment in local mental health and addiction treatment instead of incarceration. All these years later - the legislature still has not appropriated the funds as required. Instead, Oklahoma’s 77 counties are drowning as they take on the impossible task of confronting the mental health and substance abuse crisis without adequate resources. It’s time for Oklahoma’s policymakers to abide by the law.. It is time to invest in Oklahoma.
Treatment is More Cost Effective than Incarceration
Throughout much of its history, Oklahoma has followed the “tough on crime” approach which includes long sentences and few rehabilitation options. Oklahoma passed its own “tough on crime” drug law in 1971 and the effects on our State are clear. From 1983 to 2016 the incarceration rate rose by 332%. This meteoric rise only served to worsen existing racial disparities, when at the peak in 1991, there were nearly 6 Black Americans arrested for drug crimes for every 1 White American arrest.
However, as the decades rolled on, it became clear that this “tough on crime” approach has failed. Longer sentences have not reduced crime and Oklahoma is overspending on corrections for little public safety benefit. For example, Kansas has a shorter median sentence length for common property crimes than Oklahoma and yet Oklahoma has higher crime rates in nearly every category. Oklahoma is an outlier - both nationally and globally - in that we incarcerate more people and are less safe than most other places. The “tough on crime” approach as a method to combat addiction has undeniably failed.
Fortunately there are other options. Research shows that addiction treatment is cheaper and leads to better outcomes when compared to incarceration. The average cost of incarceration in Oklahoma is over 3x the cost of treatment . These treatment benefits are also proven to reduce crime. Each additional treatment facility reduces the cost of crime in a county by 4.2 Million annually on average. Treatment has unmeasurable benefits over incarceration as well, including the opportunity for families to break out of generational cycles of criminal legal contact, and for police to focus on preventing crime rather than acting as a first responder in a mental health crisis without proper training.
SQ781 is a Solution
SQ780 and SQ781 were passed by the Oklahoma voters with overwhelming support in 2016 and these measures have only continued to become more popular. SQ780, which lowered low level drug crimes and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, has been fully implemented and the results are clear. The prison population has plummeted by 21%, saving taxpayer money. Meanwhile, violent crime has dropped precipitously in Oklahoma City during a time period when it has actually risen over much of the nation. Property crimes have fallen statewide as well meaning that Oklahoma is safer now than it was prior to 2016.
As huge a success as these reforms have been, Oklahoma has yet to enjoy the full crime reduction benefits, because SQ781 has never been implemented as intended. SQ781 required that any savings to the State from diverting the time in prison for those specific crime categories would be funneled into the counties to be used for addiction and mental health treatment. The Office of Management and Enterprise Services or OMES has certified over 70 million dollars in savings created by these reforms, including over 25 million dollars since 2020, but the legislature has yet to send a cent to the counties as required.
This means that the full cost effectiveness of treatment has yet to be utilized because addiction and mental health treatment services are few and far between for our rural counties. According to the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency, over 100,000 Oklahomans who are eligible for mental health services are not receiving them, while only 6 of our 77 counties have a licensed child psychiatrist. Many of our rural Oklahomans have no options to seek treatment through a simple lack of resources.
In conclusion, the Oklahoma voters, when passing these reforms in 2016, believed that a change to our “tough on crime” policies were necessary in order to more effectively ensure public safety. With the added benefit of hindsight - even more agree now - because SQ780 has been proven to be a resounding success. However, as incredible as this success story is; the full benefits of these policies have been hampered by the State legislature’s failure to abide by the will of voters.
Now is a unique time in Oklahoma history - a time where the voters can demand that the Legislature follow through on their promise and distribute those savings to the counties as intended. This could have a transformative effect on our State - simultaneously boosting rural economies while allowing every Oklahoman access to addiction and mental health services. This would allow our families to flourish and stabilize entire communities who have been devastated as a result of mass incarceration policies.