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Vic Regalado: Cutting Mental Health budgets will increase jail costs

Tulsa World - 11/9/2017

As budgets and services are cut, law enforcement agencies find themselves taking on additional roles in order to meet the needs of the communities we serve. Due to an already dire shortage of mental health services, the Tulsa County jail is now the largest mental health facility in the state of Oklahoma.

The mental health services provided to our inmates are not meant for long-term treatment. Instead, these programs are part of a partnership with outside mental health agencies to provide long-term treatment plans to combat the recidivism rate among those suffering from mental illness. Without a budget solution, the issue of mental health in Tulsa County and across the state will worsen. The effects will be felt far beyond the walls of the jail. Cuts to vital mental health services will put the safety of the public at risk.

Considering Oklahoma has the highest rate of female incarceration and second highest rate of male incarceration, this is especially devastating. In addition, more than 35 percent of the Tulsa County Jail population has a mental health issue that requires medication.

Oklahoma legislators are currently patching up a $215 million threat to three health agencies using one-time and rainy-day funds instead of compromising on revenue-raising measures.

Without more revenue, the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services budget will be cut by millions. Not only that, but paired with federal matching funds, these cuts total an estimated $500 million lost for our state. This also means increased costs for first responders, law enforcement, hospitals, ERs, jails, and prisons.

Law enforcement agencies and first responders are already bracing for the impact of these cuts, in terms of increased crime, suicides, drug overdoses and significant increases in jail populations.

Prevention models always save money, no matter the scale. This proposed budget cut will demolish some of the most important jail-diversion and health crisis prevention programs in the state. One example of increased state costs is the elimination of diversion courts that currently serve 6,400 Oklahomans. Incarceration instead of diversion would cost the state $122 million a year.

The Tulsa County Sheriff's Office has worked with many agencies to reduce the number of people jailed with mental illness. In addition, we work to improve mental health and health care treatment while individuals are incarcerated. The county jail has new mental health pods designed to provide a more therapeutic environment that better addresses the needs of individuals impacted by mental illness. These pods are already at maximum capacity. By cutting the budgets of the agencies that provide treatment to the portion of our society that suffers from mental illness, there will be an influx of inmates in need of mental health care. With no place else to put them, inmates impacted by mental illness will have to be housed in the general population pods of the jail. This will prevent them from receiving the treatment we provide within the mental health pods.

Successful mental health treatment within the criminal justice system can only happen in partnership with many of the agencies that will be affected by these cuts. This could be devastating to first-responders and public safety.

If you or a loved one has an emergency; whether that's a burglary or a heart attack, you'll want to dial first-responders and get a rapid response. Our citizens all deserve that quick response. We must prevent overburdening our first-responders by fully funding our mental health services.

The bottom line is: Lawmakers must completely fill the $215 million budget gap so that no cuts to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services occur.

The short-term fixes currently outlined will only stop the bleeding temporarily. Without the bipartisan support of revenue-raising measures, outpatient mental health services will be cut within the year, and that cost will be devastating.

Please join me in urging our elected officials to find a bi-partisan solution that does not result in cuts to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Service.

Vic Regalado is sheriff of Tulsa County.


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