On Election Day in 2016 Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly enacted State Questions 780 and 781. Simple drug possession and many related property crimes were reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. Prison beds would be freed for criminals who need to be incarcerated.
Speaking forcefully through the ballot box, Oklahomans launched this new approach to the health crisis caused by addiction. Through SQ 780, they opted to choose treatment over prison. Its companion, SQ 781 provides that funding for community-based, substance abuse treatment would come from re-directing “averted” felony prison costs. At least that was the plan. We are over three years out and the question is: Where is that money?
The funding for “community rehabilitative services” to address mental health and substance abuse is to be budgeted and expended by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services. OMES got busy after the end of the first fiscal year after passage of SQ 781 and made an effort to calculate the savings from freeing up felony prison beds. By all accounts, this effort was a failure. The OMES calculation of more than $137 million in savings was wildly overstated. OMES was able to determine how much it costs to process and house drug possession felons but inflated how many felons were averted. The result was that there was no budgeting and funding, as the law required, to address what SQ 781 called the “root causes of crime.” Going back to the drawing board meant delay and confusion.
This paralysis by faulty analysis carried over to the next fiscal year ending in 2019 and has not been resolved to this date. We are now halfway through the third fiscal year and if there has been a resolution, no one knows about it.
Meanwhile, all 77 Oklahoma counties, which stand to gain some amount of money to help their local citizens with addiction, are waiting for the state to get its act together.
To its credit, OMES, in conjunction with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and the highly respected Oklahoma Policy Institute have been working on the problem. But it is important that the bright light of public attention continues to shine in the shadowland of government.
Once the “averted” money has been calculated, OMES regulations provide that it shall be paid to “eligible recipients.” Neither the law itself nor the regulations define “eligible recipients.” But this omission should not slow the process down. There is an obvious solution. The state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services has for years operated throughout Oklahoma doing exactly what SQ 781 was intended: on-the-ground, locally controlled, licensed treatment facilities and programs. The department has the expertise and manpower to get the job done. Without centralized management, the process could become quite messy. Scores, perhaps hundreds of service providers would get public money with very limited professional accountability or oversight. The people needing help and the taxpayers deserve better.
Practically everyone in Oklahoma has a friend or loved one who has been ravaged by addiction. Methamphetamine alone destroys thousands of lives every year. This is why in 2016 SQ 780 and 781 passed with such resounding numbers.
We need to hold our state agencies and legislators accountable for seeing to it that the will of the people is carried out, swiftly and efficiently. Shifting emphasis from prison to treatment was bold and far-sighted. Oklahoma overnight became a leader in addressing this national tragedy. Now let’s get the job done!
William C. Kellough is a Tulsa attorney, former presiding Tulsa County district judge and a member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board. Opinion pieces by board members appear in this space most weeks.