By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
Twenty-five graduates of the state’s drug courts and mental health courts were honored at a commencement ceremony on April 15 at the state capitol. This highly successful alternative-to-incarceration program has put millions of dollars back into the state economy.
The event was followed by a rally and awards presentation.
“These ‘treatment’ courts are considered to be among the most successful alternatives to incarcerating non-violent offenders with mental or addictive disorders,” said Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS) Commissioner Terri White, whose agency oversees the program.
“Since FY2000, treatment courts – primarily drug courts – have produced a ‘cost avoidance’ to the state of nearly $332 million,” White added.
More than 10,000 Oklahomans have graduated from drug courts alone, with approximately 4,000 state citizens currently participating in the state’s drug court program in 73 counties. Mental health courts exist in 16 counties with about 450 active participants.
An additional 17 counties have requested funding to start mental health courts. ODMHSAS also oversees six family treatment courts and seven juvenile drug courts. Courts have recently introduced dockets for new populations such as Oklahoma veterans.
During the event, Oklahoma court programs received awards for outstanding performance. They included courts from Delaware, Ottawa, Payne, Pontotoc, Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, and the 3rd Judicial District Drug Court.
Treatment courts are part of ODMHSAS’ “Smart on Crime” initiative, which includes cost-saving programs geared to address mental illness and addiction at a number of diversion points in the criminal justice process.
These courts redirect selected non-violent drug offenders into a highly structured, judicially monitored treatment program rather than sending them to prison.
The Oklahoma County Mental Health Court Program was recognized for excellence in reducing recidivism. It received the award for Outstanding Reduction in Participant Jail Days among state mental health court programs, with a 98 percent reduction.
“Mental Health Court is an alternative to incarceration, where participants receive treatment for their mental health and/ or substance abuse needs,” said Heather Coyle, Assistant District Attorney Oklahoma County.
“Medication compliance is essential to the success of the participants. The mental health court team provides support and guidance to assist participants in reaching their goals. It is amazing to see the transformation of the participants into productive members of the community.”
The program results show significant success rates with participants obtaining jobs, increasing income, reuniting with their children, and reduced recidivism compared to released inmates.
Additionally, there is substantial savings of tax payer dollars. DOC spends $19,000 a year on average to incarcerate someone; drug court costs $5,000 a year.
One study found that 1,058 drug court graduates earned nearly $35 million in total wages over a three-year period, and put more than $2 million in total tax revenue back into the economy. Had these same individuals been incarcerated during that period, it would have cost Oklahoma taxpayers $60.3 million.
In addition to the graduation ceremony, several judges spoke and graduates shared their stories about how the program has changed their lives. Educational booths provided information about specific county programs.
In addition to the Oklahoma County Mental Health Court Program, awards for outstanding achievement were presented to the following programs:
Delaware County Drug Court – Outstanding Improvement in Participant Employment (100 percent reduction in unemployment).
Ottawa County Drug Court – Outstanding Completion Rates (86.3 percent completion rate).
Payne County Drug Court – Outstanding Performance in Reuniting Participants with Their Children (187.7 percent increase in reuniting participants with their children).
Pontotoc County Mental Health Court – Outstanding Improvement in Participant Employment (100 percent reduction in unemployment).
Tulsa County Mental Health Court – Outstanding Reduction in Participant Inpatient Hospitalization (51 percent reduction in inpatient days).
The 3rd Judicial District Drug Court – Outstanding Improvement in Participant Education (74.9 percent increase in participants receiving their GED or high school diploma at time of graduation.)
Since beginning in Fiscal Year 2000, drugs courts have produced a cost avoidance to the state in excess of $331.8 million.
Among 434 graduates who have been out of the program an average of three years, only 3.2 percent had been re-incarcerated, compared with 23.4 percent of released inmates and 42 percent of released inmates with a serious mental illness.
For more information, visit the ODMHSAS website.