Question 781 passed six years ago. So where are the millions that should be funding rehabilitative programs?

Published: 09/29/2022, 4:28 PM
Edited: 09/30/2022, 10:51 PM
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This story is sponsored by Just The Beginning, Inc., a Tulsa-based non-profit that provides transformative help to women who have been impacted by incarceration, behavioral health issues, addiction, and trauma. 

(TULSA, Okla.) In 2016, Oklahomans voted for criminal justice reform with the passage of the “Oklahoma Smart Justice Reform Act”.

State Question 780 changed certain non-violent drug and theft-related crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. State Question 781 diverted the savings from SQ 780 to rehabilitative programs for justice involved people. 

A few years later, legislators made SQ 780 retroactive with the passage of HB 1269. Oklahoma made national headlines when more than 400 people were released in the country’s largest commutation in history.  

But, despite the decline of Oklahoma’s prison population, the state is still at the top end for incarceration rates, particularly female incarceration

Experts say most people who commit crimes do so because of mental health issues and/or substance use disorder.

The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS) now offers county jail-based screenings to determine a felony offender’s risk of reoffending and identify substance use and mental health treatment needs. According to ODMHSAS, over 82 percent of those screened were diverted to treatment and did not go to prison, but not all counties are taking advantage of the program. 

STORY CODE: SQ781

Researchers at FWD.us say justice-involved people become trapped in cycles of failure in Oklahoma, through the struggle of finding housing, paying their fines and fees, and successfully moving forward with their lives. 

Other supporters of the Oklahoma Smart Justice Reform Act said having a criminal record also makes it hard for people to get a job and become involved in their community. 

The need for rehabilitative services such as mental health and substance abuse for justice-involved people is there, but SQ 781 still isn’t being funded. 

Analysts for the Oklahoma Policy Institute estimate $20 million in SQ 780 savings should be going into the County Community Safety Investment Fund every year. Funds should then be dispersed in proportion to county population, as reported in the most recent census.

The Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES) is the state entity required to calculate the official annual savings and averted costs from the implementation of the Oklahoma Smart Justice Reform, per Section 632 of Chapter 10 of Title 57

But agreeing on the formula for those calculations has been a challenge, so no official tally exists for 2017, 2018, or 2019. 

Kris Steele, executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry and former Speaker of the House, serves on the board of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. 

He said after getting together with other non-profits, OMES, and the Department of Corrections in the summer of 2020 they were able to reach an agreement to calculate the formula

Steele said the estimated savings were $10.6 million in 2020 and should be between $10 million and $15 million annually thereafter. 

OMES confirmed the savings were $10.6 million in 2020. They also provided the savings for 2021 and 2022, about $16.6 million and $19.9 million, respectively.

That amounts to $47.1 million on record for 2020, 2021, and 2022. 

If we meet in the middle ($15 million) for annual estimates for 2017 (a half year, since SQ 781 took effect on July 1, 2017), 2018, and 2019, that amounts to $84.6 million for rehabilitative programs for justice involved people. 

We searched through Oklahoma’s budgets for FY2018, FY2019, FY2020, FY2021, FY2022 and FY2023. The only County Community Safety Investment Fund (SQ 781) appropriation we could find was $10 million in the 2020 budget. 

Last month, Oklahoma Watch reported the $10 million in the 2020 was never appropriated to the fund, and Stitt administration spokesperson Carly Atchison declined their requests to find out why. 

And what about the other estimated $74.6 million? 

While the County Community Safety Investment Fund continues to go unfunded, other programs are reportedly being funded “in the spirit of the law”, such as the county jail-based screenings mentioned above. 

FWD.us spokesperson LaGloria Wheatfall told us $10.5 million was appropriated to ODMHSAS for the FY21 budget to fund a program that would provide tablets to first responders, $12.5 million was appropriated in the budget for FY22 for “Smart on Crime” programs, and $12.5 million was built into the base budget for OMDHSAS for FY23.

“It is also important to note that the appropriations that have been made to ODMHSAS are also substantially less than annual averted costs from SQ 780, estimated by OMES,” Wheatfall said. 

An ODMHSAS spokesperson told us they are looking into whether they receive monies from specific state fund accounts and, if so, how much funding has been released to them from the County Community Safety Investment Fund to date, if any. 

State Rep. Justin Humphrey, chairman of the House Committee on Criminal Justice and Correction, authored House Bill 3294 earlier this year to ensure funds are appropriated into to the County Community Safety Investment Fund. It passed the House unanimously but was never heard in the Senate. 

Humphrey is holding an interim study on October 24 to try to determine answers about SQ 781 funding, such as if there is any money in the fund and who should be over it. 

In the meantime, grassroots organizations across the state are doing what they can to provide the help their communities need.

Just The Beginning founder Jenice Jones told us more than 125 women have graduated from their rigorous program with a 93 percent success rate.

“We help women that no one else will,” Jones said. 

Annual fundraisers like their upcoming #PathToEmpower event on October 22 guarantee women in the Tulsa community and their families have a chance. 

“Rehabilitation is not a one-time event, it can be a lifetime process of services for some,” Jones said.

Jones said it is unfortunate for the voters and families in their community to suffer individually and as a whole because of funds not equally distributed for rehabilitation. 

“We would love to serve more women in a continuous basis,” Jones said. 

Jones is inviting local lawmakers to this year’s event to demonstrate the kinds of programs SQ 781 should be funding. 

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt celebrated a historic $2.8 billion in state savings with the close of FY 2022 this past August.

We reached out to Governor Stitt’s office to find out why the County Community Safety Investment Fund did not appear in the current year’s budget. This article will be updated once he responds.

This article has been updated to include information about the state’s lack of appropriation for the County Community Safety Investment Fund, funding for related programs, and HB 3294. 

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