Report Highlights Need for Changes in Oklahoma’s Behavioral Health Policies

By Stephanie Joson, Program Associate, Council of State Governments Justice Center

Oklahoma policymakers have recently partnered with the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center in a comprehensive effort to reduce crime and corrections costs in the state. Early last month, the CSG Justice Center recommended that policymakers increase the number of crisis stabilization beds and treatment facilities in the state for individuals with acute mental health needs. The recommendation is one of several “justice reinvestment” measures outlined in a CSG Justice Center report on ways to improve efficiency in the state’s criminal justice system and reinvest savings in programs that increase public safety.

To read “Justice Reinvestment in Oklahoma: Analysis and Policy Framework,” click here.

State lawmakers are looking at the impact that shortages of crisis stabilization and treatment beds have had on municipal law enforcement agencies. The CSG Justice Center report shows how a shortage of crisis stabilization beds in Tulsa, the state’s second-largest city, has forced local law enforcement officers to expend significant time and resources transporting individuals to mental health facilities across the state. Officers made 180 such trips last year—traveling an average of 229 miles each trip, according to data analyzed by CSG Justice Center researchers. (The map below demonstrates the distance and costs of these transports.)

Transporting individuals in crisis across the state has had a dramatic impact on health and budget outcomes. Not only does it delay connecting individuals to critical treatment services; it also removes officers from their regular duties (the state requires two officers for every transport). The agency must pay significant transportation costs, salaries for the officers making the trip, and overtime pay for officers required to compensate for the diverted patrol presence.

“Some smaller departments might have three, four, or five officers on the streets on a daily basis. When there aren’t enough [treatment] beds in Tulsa and you need to take someone somewhere else, you are taking officers off the street for two to four hours, or even more,” said Chief Ike Shirley, head of the police department in Bixby (a small city just outside Tulsa).

ohio outline

Lawmakers in Oklahoma are working with the CSG Justice Center to examine trends in the state’s criminal justice system. The strategy is called “Justice Reinvestment,” a data-driven approach that helps states identify ways to contain corrections costs, increase public safety, and improve services. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, in partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts, provides support for this initiative to states that demonstrate a commitment to bipartisan decision-making and a willingness to share access to certain state records with outside researchers. A bipartisan, inter-branch working group comprised of key policymakers and stakeholders from criminal justice, health services, and other relevant fields guides the state through this process.

As the one of the technical assistance providers for states receiving justice reinvestment assistance, the CSG Justice Center spends months collecting and analyzing vast amount of data from corrections, mental health, substance abuse, court, and law enforcement agencies. In Oklahoma, CSG Justice Center researchers also conducted interviews and focus groups with a wide variety of stakeholders, including treatment providers, law enforcement officials, district attorneys, community leaders, and victim advocates.

CSG Justice Center analysts then collaborate with the working group to develop a set of data-driven policy options to reduce violent crime and contain spending on prisons. Recognizing that drug possession is the most common non-violent felony in the state, the Oklahoma working group also recommended improving access to substance abuse treatment for individuals on supervision, and urged judges to factor the person’s risk of reoffending, criminal history, and substance abuse history into sentencing decisions.

Oklahoma state leaders are currently weighing these and other justice reinvestment policy options. On January 20, Speaker of the House Kris Steele (R-26) introduced a corrections bill that takes into account many of the recommendations in the CSG Justice Center report.

Many states share Oklahoma’s experience in balancing tight budgets with a high demand for services. Justice reinvestment is an approach that can help policymakers make difficult resource allocation decisions by providing them with data that identify trends and inform policy and cost-saving options. Once savings have been realized, the state then redirects a portion towards programs that will further increase public safety.

Several states have reallocated resources saved through justice reinvestment strategies towards services for behavioral health needs. In Texas, policymakers reinvested more than half of the state’s averted corrections costs — $241 million out of $443 million — into mental health and substance abuse treatment and diversion programs. Savings from justice reinvestment policies enacted in North Carolina last June will enable state legislators to reinvest more than $4 million each year in treatment programs for people on supervision. In Ohio, where work in justice reinvestment began in 2008, the state’s criminal justice system adopted a set of risk assessment instruments in order to target community supervision and treatment resources towards individuals who are most in need of those services.

To date, the CSG Justice Center has worked with a total of 14 states to design data-driven justice reinvestment strategies: Arizona, Connecticut, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, and Wisconsin. BJA expects to provide an update regarding opportunities for other states that wish to receive assistance on its website later this month.