Playing It Smart

Stephne Snipes tried to enter a homeless shelter that also offered an addiction treatment program, and her life – already in tatters – went from bad to worse.

“They did a background check and found I had a warrant, so I ended up in Oklahoma County jail,” says Snipes, 52.

Snipes says that the warrant was issued when she did not pay fines and fees stemming from her second DUI. It was not a freak occurrence for Snipes, who has a master’s degree in social work and who has struggled with alcohol addiction for decades. A 30-day treatment program and a 12-step program had helped Snipes stay sober from 1988 to 2001.

“After that, I had a lot of different losses in my life, including both my parents and a divorce,” Snipes says. “My life started falling apart again and I didn’t do the things I needed to do to help with my recovery. I was under a lot of stress. It doesn’t take long to fall back. Within five years, I had lost everything.”

Snipes had spent 10 days in jail when representatives of Oklahoma City’s NorthCare Day Reporting Center contacted her. The NorthCare Day Reporting Center is a pre-trial program that is designed to serve mentally ill persons and individuals with co-occurring mental health and addiction disorders that are in the custody of the Oklahoma County Sheriff and are awaiting sentencing for appropriate criminal offenses.

Seventy-nine percent of female inmates and 46 percent of male inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness.

NorthCare’s program permits clients to live in the community and helps them enter programs to face their challenges – so long as the client checks in regularly in person, phones in several times a day and continues to follow program parameters.

“I thought, ‘Why not try it?’” Snipes says. “At first I thought that I couldn’t check in every day in person and call three times a day. But it was very, very helpful.”

Today Snipes has undergone treatment, is sober, has reformed her relationship with three grown children and is working on rebuilding her life.

“It was a real blessing,” Snipes says of the program.

Snipes isn’t the only one who has benefited from day reporting – not by a long shot.

“The day reporting program has about an 87 percent success rate,” says Randy Tate, chief executive officer of NorthCare.

Tate describes the parameters for potential clients for NorthCare’s pre-adjudication programs.

“The program excludes anyone with a violent criminal history,” he says. “We have staff that go to the jail every day to see if new admissions meet the criteria for the program and if they want to participate. We have the D.A. release them to us, we evaluate them, get them into the programs they need and create a schedule for them.

“A lot of times, if they do well in the program, the charges go away,” Tate adds.

Blake Tabler, 19, also knows how the program works. He’s come a long way in a short period of time.

“I was 15 when I started smoking, and I fell in with the wrong crowd,” Tabler says. “That led to drugs, and I used meth when I was 17. I was hooked from the first time.”

Tabler says his parents knew he had developed a drug habit and that he moved away from home as soon as he turned 18.

Shortly thereafter, Tabler was arrested and charged with two counts of possession of meth and marijuana.

“My parents were relieved when I got arrested, because they thought I was going to die,” he says.
Tabler was headed toward a youth boot camp-type program in the state prison system when he too was offered the opportunity to enter NorthCare’s day reporting program.

After eight months in a sober living environment, Tabler has now moved back in with his family. He just earned his GED and is looking forward to starting college in June to study nursing.

“I’m really excited about school, and things have been going great,” Tabler says. “The day reporting program has been very helpful. It gets you into routines and helps you discipline yourself.”

Tate says that only one thing prevents the 30-year-old nonprofit agency from contributing to the success stories of more Oklahomans like Snipes and Tabler: money.

“There absolutely is demand, but it takes funding,” Tate says.

Funding is exactly what the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services is looking for in its current budget proposal, to enable a Smart on Crime initiative that has garnered near-universal support from around the state.

Smart on Crime, endorsed by the Oklahoma Sheriff’s Association and the Oklahoma District Attorney’s Council, proposes to use evidence-based programs in the areas of criminal justice diversion, pre-sentencing engagement and reintegration to reduce recidivism and decrease demand for correctional beds. If fully enacted as proposed by ODMHSAS, Smart on Crime would dramatically expand funding for myriad programs to try to take the pressure off the state’s prison system, save taxpayer dollars and save lives. Programs would include the expansion of day reporting opportunities, drug courts and those that specifically address Oklahoma’s shocking rate of women in prison.

Those in the penal system would receive the treatment needed for mental health and addiction issues; and those leaving the system would warrant “soft landing” programs to help with reintegration into society.

Oklahoma Commissioner of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Terri White makes a strong argument for the wisdom of Smart on Crime.

“My parents were relieved when I got arrested, because they thought I was going to die.”

“Programs like these are extremely successful in Oklahoma,” White says. “With the money we have, we do incredible work. We were one of only six states to earn a ‘B’ grade from the National Alliance on Mental Illness in terms of services – and no one got an ‘A’. Our drug court is a national model. Oklahoma City has an amazing day reporting program, but it’s only in Oklahoma City. Our 24/7 first responders program has a 97 percent success rate in keeping people from being arrested – but it’s only in Tulsa.

“What Smart on Crime does is to make these many services available statewide, or at least widely available,” White continues. “We want to expand these programs into local communities that don’t now have access to them. We want to make sure they are available at the local level.”

White points out that Smart on Crime is not about being soft on crime.

“No one is saying that no one belongs in prison,” White says. “There are people who are scary and dangerous and need to be in prison.”

However, there are also many people in the criminal justice system that are better serviced by mental health and addiction treatment – and it is this group that causes prison overcrowding.

“We’ve realized that there is a much more efficient, less expensive way to deal with people with criminal justice for non violent and mental health issues,” White says.

Evidence strongly supports the Smart on Crime approach.

Out of 25,000 inmates, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections estimates that nearly 12,000 have a history of – or are currently exhibiting – symptoms of severe mental illness. Seventy-nine percent of female inmates and 46 percent of male inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Of these individuals, 57 percent were incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Out of all inmates in DOC custody, 33 percent were imprisoned for drug and alcohol offenses, and at least 50 percent were incarcerated for a crime related to substance abuse.

“We deducted the cost of services and found that we’d saved the county $850,000.

The average cost to maintain an inmate in prison is $48 per day. For someone in a prison mental health unit, the cost jumps to approximately $175 per day. Providing appropriate mental health services to someone in the community to keep them from entering the criminal justice system costs approximately $25 a day; and, providing appropriate substance abuse services to someone in the community to keep them from entering the criminal justice system costs less than $15 a day.

White says that the demonstrated cost savings is a key reason why Smart on Crime has the support of law enforcement and political leaders.

“Oklahomans are fiscally conservative, and this is a fiscally responsible way to deal with non-violent offenders,” she says. “Why spend $19,000 a year keeping a non-violent offender in prison when a program costs an average of $5,000 a year?”

The price tag for the entire slate of Smart on Crime initiatives is more than $95 million. But supporters assert that savings would offset the cost in just three years and that those savings would only continue to increase as more appropriate clients were reached.

Consider just the savings provided by NorthCare’s prison alternative programs.

“We looked at a five-year period and counted the number of jail bed days we’d saved the county,” says NorthCare Chief Operating Officer Clark Grothy. “We deducted the cost of services and found that we’d saved the county $850,000. If you looked at Smart on Crime in the same way, the savings would be tremendous.”

But it isn’t just the financial prudence of Smart on Crime that engenders support for it.

“Sure, we look at the stats, we see the money that can be saved,” says State Rep. Pat Ownbey (R-Ardmore). “But it’s a chance to save lives, to save families and to save children. Children with a parent in prison are more likely to go to prison themselves. It’s a cycle we haven’t been able to break.”

Ownbey prompted a study last year on prison reform and was stunned with what he discovered.

“Some politicians might feel like, ‘Let’s just lock people up and throw away the key’, but today you can’t afford that,” he says. “And these are people who don’t need to be in prison. There are a lot of women in prison who don’t need to be there, and who other states would not have incarcerated.”

Ownbey says he learned a lot in meetings with Texas officials.

“Texas has been a model for prison reform,” Ownbey says.

When White and her staff initially introduced the Smart on Crime proposal, Ownbey was impressed and pleased. He’s been a vocal supporter ever since.

“When you look at the success of the programs, whether it’s drug court or psychiatric intervention – they work,” Ownbey says. “You can’t help but be impressed with the stats.”

Indeed, based on statistics compiled by ODMHSAS, Smart on Crime programs are effective. The re-arrest rates for drug court graduates after four years are less than half those of released inmates. Mental health courts have reduced jail bed days by some 90 percent.

Smart on Crime also is structured to reach individuals at varying points of contact – from early interception to reintegration after incarceration. White says the proposal is like a menu.

“If we’re given a certain amount of money, we will have a dialogue with the governor and legislature about what to invest in,” White says.

“They will be able to look and see that if they invest in this, the return will be this. We’ve been able to show them what the returns are.”

That cafeteria approach to funding Smart on Crime is likely to come in handy. White and Ownbey say that Gov. Mary Fallin has proposed investing $3 million in it this year.

“Ninety-five million was not realistic, but I am encouraged that we will see some investment in Smart on Crime,” White says.

While Ownbey says he also thinks $3 million is possible, he also would like to see the legislature look at the bigger picture of the whole fundamentals of the budget.

“I wish we could look at it like, ‘Do we really need government to do this?’” he says. “We really need to ask tough questions about what we want government to do.”

In the meantime, supporters hope for some funding to start the process of Oklahoma becoming smart on crime.

“We’re 46th in the country in per capita funding,” White says. “The challenge is are we doing enough?”

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