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Experts Say OK Prison Reform Begins With Mental Health Reform

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The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Oklahoma would like to see more police officers trained in crisis intervention. The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Oklahoma would like to see more police officers trained in crisis intervention.
OKLAHOMA CITY -

You’ll be hearing a lot about criminal justice reform in the coming months. It’s on the November ballot; it’s on the minds of lawmakers; and it’s on the radar of mental health professionals. They say you can’t fix prison overcrowding without first fixing the mental health system. 

These days policing means more than patrolling. It also means being a mental health professional and addiction counselor.

Mardell King-Hawkins of Oklahoma City knows firsthand it doesn’t always work. She was arrested several times because of the way her mental illness and addiction made her act.

"They come to you, they approach you like you're a hardened criminal. And I wasn't medicated. I wasn't on my medications. So, I was combative,” said King-Hawkins.

And like so many other Oklahomans with mental illness, she found herself behind bars. 

State Question 780 would reclassify some crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, to reduce the prison population.

State Question 781 would allow money saved from fewer incarcerations to be used for treatment programs. 

But it will take time to see those savings. Mental health experts say the state needs to start addressing mental health issues now.

"We are not diverting people to treatment. We are putting them in jail for issues that they were really not competent to commit because they're ill,” said Traci Cook with NAMI Oklahoma.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Oklahoma would also like to see more police officers trained in crisis intervention.  Right now, only about 1,000 state-wide have been trained.

"We’ve got to make sure our officers are safe. We've got to make sure they have appropriate training for these programs, and we've got to [sic] make sure that our system has somewhere to divert people for treatment so they can be well and go back to work and raise their own children,” said Cook.

King-Hawkins said if the officers who arrested her had been properly trained to identify mental illness and addiction, she likely would have stayed out of jail.

"He automatically assumed that I was on drugs or that I was doing something wrong. And I was just asking for help,” said King-Hawkins.

King-Hawkins is proof that treatment can work. She is being treated for her mental illness; she says she is clean and sober; and she is working with police to teach them how to address people with mental illness.

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