Gov. Stitt's Veto Shocks Lawmakers On Bill For Mental Health Services

At the Capitol - many lawmakers were stunned by a veto from the governor on a bill dealing with mental health services. 

Tuesday, June 13th 2023, 5:06 pm



At the Capitol - many lawmakers were stunned by a veto from the governor on a bill dealing with mental health services. 

Senate Bill 522 was aimed at localizing competency exams and mental health services.

The bill made it through the legislature after many amendments and changes, and it was also sent to the governor on the last day of session, only to be blocked by Stitt.

“Just a critical piece of legislation,” Sen. John Haste, (R ) Broken Arrow, said.

The Senate author of the bill, Sen. Haste said he was shocked to see the governor’s veto message for Senate Bill 552.

“To say I was surprised on Friday when SB 225 was vetoed is putting it mildly,” Sen. Haste said.

The bill deals with restoring competency, or working to help inmates understand the charges filed against them, enough to defend themselves in court.

Currently there’s one main forensic center in the state where competency exams are done, in Vinita. The Department of Mental Health Services and Substance Abuse is tasked with transporting inmates to the center and providing necessary competency restoration services.

This legislation would have given more local control, allowing counselors to do competency exams and begin mental health treatment at local jails and facilities. These counselors would have been trained through ODMHSAS.

“This was going to get it so that individuals were not staying in jail longer- waiting for trial than the sentence would have been,” Sen. Haste said.

In his veto message- Stitt said, “Although this bill is well intended, it is not the right solution at this time.” He went on to say, “Many county jails do not yet have necessary treatment staff, environments and frameworks in place to handle the responsibilities this bill would create.”

The bill had full support from the House and only one no vote in the senate. 

“It was good policy, good legislation that had been agreed upon,” Sen. Haste said.

There were also multiple groups outside of the legislature that were working on the bill, including the Sheriff’s Association, District Attorney Council and ODMHSAS.

“To be able to get three different entities like this that are coming from three different standpoints is not that easy,” Sen. Haste said.

ODMHSAS is already doing pilot programs with the same goal as Senate Bill 552, telling us in a statement- “Individuals must be able to understand the charges against them and be able to assist in their defense. Without pilot programs, they will not have quick access to professional services and must wait for competency evaluation from the Oklahoma Forensic Center.”

Because this was a regular session bill, lawmakers can't override the governor's veto until the next regular session in February, but Sen. Haste says he doesn’t plan to let this policy fall through the cracks.

“We think it's important, and we're not going to give up on it at this point,” Sen. Haste said.

Full veto message from Gov. Stitt:

Pursuant to the authority vested in me by Section 11 of Article VI of the Oklahoma Constitution, I have vetoed Enrolled Senate Bill 5 52. Enrolled Senate Bill 552 would, in many instances, require county jails to hold and provide restorative treatment, therapy, or training for individuals deemed incompetent prior to conviction. Currently, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services is, by statute, generally expected to take custody of those individuals and provide necessary competency restoration services. This, of course, does not prohibit jails from providing treatment options while individuals wait for space to become available through the Department; many jails do, in fact, provide some level of restorative services. 
Nonetheless, we must do a better job addressing rampant mental health issues plaguing our society. This includes taking a hard look at the methods and structures being used to restore to competency those criminal defendants who may be afflicted by mental health disorders. Although this Bill is well intended, it is not the right solution at this time. For instance, many county jails do not yet have necessary treatment staff, environments, and frameworks in place to handle the responsibilities this Bill would create. 
I urge stakeholders such as district attorneys, law enforcement officials ( e.g. sheriffs), the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and other mental health professionals to collaborate well before the next legislative session to identify creative solutions available to address the overarching issues-where (e.g. outpatient-type treatment) and how we meaningfully treat and restore individuals temporarily deemed incompetent to stand trial. Many solutions are surely available without the need for legislative changes. If we are to implement legislative mandates, we must first ensure the requisite structures are in place. For these reasons, I have vetoed Enrolled Senate Bill 552

Full statement from ODMHSAS:

“The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services currently offers jail-based competency restoration services, through a pilot program, across the state. We accomplish this by working with local officials, at their discretion. SB 552 aims to provide mental health services to all communities, by allowing specialty-trained forensics teams to enter jail facilities and provide competency restoration services to those awaiting trial.
Competency restoration helps those who have been charged with a crime to regain competency before they enter a plea or stand trial. Individuals must be able to understand the charges against them and be able to assist in their defense. Without pilot programs, they will not have quick access to professional services and must wait for competency evaluation from the Oklahoma Forensic Center (OFC).
At ODMHSAS, we understand we must be willing to transform with the needs of our consumers. Establishing an array of services recognizes the individual and prioritizes them. Over 60 county jails have participated in the pilot program, and we hope others will realize the value this brings to Oklahoma.”
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