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Do Oklahomans want a better mental health system? SQs 780 and 781 are good 'litmus test,' state leaders say

If Oklahomans truly want a better mental health system — one that diverts people with brain diseases away from the criminal justice system — they will support the criminal justice reform measures, SQ 780 and SQ 781, a state health leader said Wednesday. 

Although he would not offer a direct endorsement, State Health Commissioner Terry Cline said in an interview Wednesday that although there are some legitimate questions around implementing SQ 780 and SQ 781, it's the right direction for Oklahoma.  

Plus, they're a good "litmus test" for how the public feels about criminal justice reform, he said. 

In the past decade, the number of Oklahomans with mental illnesses and substance use disorders ending up in county jails and state prisons has continued to grow. Currently, 60 percent of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections' population — almost 17,000 people — either has a history of or current symptoms of mental illness. 

Cline said how Oklahomans vote on SQ 780 and SQ 781 will say a lot about their priorities for this vulnerable population. 

SQ 780 would reclassify some criminal offenses, such as drug possession and property crimes, as misdemeanors instead of felonies. SQ 781 would take money saved from implementing SQ 780 and allow counties to fund community rehabilitation programs with the savings.

"For one, I think it shows the will of the people to make a decision – are you for treatment and actually improving the health of individuals who are struggling with these illnesses?" Cline said. "Is the Oklahoma Standard to provide these resources to individuals who are struggling with chronic illnesses that are diseases of the brain, or is it to be punitive and lock them up to get them out of the way and out of our society for a limited period of time without solving or addressing the issues that really plague these individuals, which are illnesses? I think we’ll find out on Nov. 8."

Cline, a licensed psychologist, served as the administrator for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration from 2006 to 2008, a position for which he was nominated by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Cline began his tenure as Oklahoma’s Commissioner of Health in June 2009. He grew up in Ardmore. 

Other health leaders have voiced their support for the two criminal justice state questions as well. 

Mike Brose, executive director of Mental Health Association Oklahoma, said he will vote yes on SQ 780 and SQ 781.

Some people have criticized the measures as being too vague, but Brose said he would take "too vague" over inaction. 

“If it takes these two state questions, I’m for them being passed," Brose said.

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Jaclyn Cosgrove

Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. Jaclyn... Read more ›