Can we get it right this time or will history repeat itself?

Can we get it right this time or will history repeat itself?

By Michael W. Brose, MSW
CEO, Mental Health Association Oklahoma

As more effective medications began to emerge in the 1950s and ’60s, large, isolated state mental hospitals began to close or be downsized across the country, including here in Oklahoma. The cost to maintain them was astronomical, as well as inhumane and fraught with poor treatment outcomes. Today, the new defacto institutions are jails and prisons. History is repeating itself.

As mental health hospitals closed, treatment began to shift from long-term institutionalization to community-based treatment. These community-based methods continue to evolve with proven outcomes. Mental health advocates have long celebrated this shift from the large state mental health hospitals to community-based treatment. This allowed individuals to worship, work, obtain their care and live in their own communities near their own families. But the funding shift from large, expensive and inefficient “mental institutions” to modern, fully-funded community-based treatment systems never materialized to required levels. Without this shift in funding, the country has witnessed the growth of chronic homelessness on our streets and the overuse of jails and prisons. It would appear the progress and growth of modern mental health and addiction treatment is, ironically, no more than a delusion as long as fully-funded community-based care promises go unmet.

After the passage of State Questions 780 and 781, Oklahomans have declared the enormous cost of warehousing non-violent offenders in jails and prisons must stop. People with untreated mental illness and addiction who are non-violent offenders should be provided criminal justice system oversight as they receive community-based treatment. All of this, if fully funded, is far more effective for individuals and far less expensive to the taxpayer.

Solutions start with educating voters so they understand the facts and demand restorative rather than punitive — and expensive — justice. An informed electorate holds our elected officials and candidates accountable. Plus, it allows our elected officials from both parties who support system change the inoculation from cheap campaign attacks which too often attempt to label such candidates as “soft on crime.”

From there, the lift and shift becomes even heavier. The need is to begin the slow change (the business community would call it a 10-year plan) from excessive incarceration funding to community-based treatment funding. The community-based treatment remains coupled with continued accountability to the criminal justice system to ensure community safety. If this weren’t difficult enough, we’ve put private prisons in small Oklahoma communities as major employers wrapped in political protection complete with expensive lobbyists and financial campaign gifts. This political protection and campaign support are courtesy of the private prison industry.

Does Oklahoma have the political will and leadership to make this big shift, or will history repeat itself? The passage of State Questions 780 and 781 coupled with a sustained business plan moored to priorities of restorative justice gives us this chance. The State of Oklahoma may for once emerge as a bellwether for the country to look at and emulate.


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