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November 11, 2005 - The Oklahoman (OK)

Should Prisons Punish Or Prevent?

Experts Debate

By Susan Simpson

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Thousands of Oklahomans with mental illness or drug addiction are incarcerated in Oklahoma because of a system largely favoring punishment over prevention and recovery, speakers said Thursday at an emergency summit in Oklahoma City. $16,842: annual cost to house a prisoner.

Hundreds of state leaders and advocates gathered to push for ways to keep nonviolent offenders out of the state's jails and prisons. Speakers advocated early diagnosis and treatment of people with addiction or mental illness at the community level, or quickly after they enter the criminal justice system. They also want more training for police and others who respond to crisis situations.

"The majority of individuals who struggle with mental illness are not violent," said Terry Cline, the state's mental health commissioner. He said programs like Oklahoma County's mental health court are a cost-effective alternative to prison.

Mental health courts also are in McCurtain County and are planned in Seminole County, and Cline hopes to add 10 more next year, if funded by the state Legislature. Many counties also have drug courts diverting nonviolent drug addicts into treatment. But until more community services are available to prevent, diagnose and treat mental illness and substance abuse, the problem of overcrowded prisons will plague the state, Cline said. "These are Band-Aid approaches," he said.

"We need a complete transformation of our system." 'It's a cultural problem Candace Blalock, a district judge in McClain and Garvin counties, said state lawmakers could enact legislation that would more quickly divert offenders from criminal courts into mental health and substance abuse programs.

She also advocated legislation to allow the state Pardon and Parole Board to consider the early release of nonviolent felons now incarcerated as a result of mental illness or substance abuse.

Changes also have to start at the local law enforcement and prosecution level, said Jack Turner, who served on a state task force on mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence. "It's a cultural problem," he said. "Instead of early intervention, it's throwing them in the big house and locking them up."

Cheryl Booze of Bethany said police need more crisis intervention training. Her son has bipolar disorder and was arrested and jailed for a week after tussling with police after he threatened suicide. She thinks he should have been admitted to a hospital or crisis center. "The police have no idea how to handle someone who is suicidal," Booze said.

Tulsa Police Chief Dave Been said more departments are training officers in dealing with people with mental illness. Still, jails are the biggest care providers of the mentally ill. Of Oklahoma County's 2,800 inmates, about 500 are on medication for mental illness, Sheriff John Whetsel said.

"Law enforcement and corrections were never intended to be mental health professions," he said. Many people with mental illness also have substance abuse problems, said Sara Smith, Tulsa County special judge. She said her drug court saves taxpayers money and transforms lives. If offenders complete treatment and stay out of trouble, they avoid jail and become productive citizens. "They call my court the lost souls court," Smith said. "But I can tell you, it's the best job. Where else in the courthouse do you get to applaud people who are doing well?"

By The Numbers

  • 24,000: Number of prisoners n the state corrections system.
  • 8,000: Number of inmates with a history or symptoms of mental illness.
  • 5,000: Number considered seriously mentally ill. 4,000: Number taking medication for their illnesses.
  • 60%-80%: Portion of inmates jailed because of a substance abuse-related crime.
  • 55%: Portion of male inmates with a history of serious mental illness jailed for nonviolent crimes.
  • 46%: Portion of female inmates with a history of serious mental illness jailed for nonviolent crimes.
  • $4,810: Average annual cost per person in drug court.

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