While 2-year-old Asher Reed-White is fascinated with excavators and all things digging, his mommy focuses on some digging of her own.
Asher's mother, Terri White, investigates the needs of the state's mentally ill and substance abusers as a state commissioner. As a crystal-ball gazer, she's willing to make an optimistic prediction.
“I think ... we're going to see increased funding for mental health and substance abuse services in Oklahoma,” she said.
The commissioner of the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services said the governor and state Legislature saw fit not to cut the department's budget last year, indicating a desire to address incarcerating substance abusers or the mentally ill rather than treating them.
“Do we want to invest in ensuring that we have healthy brains and we're providing health care for mental illness and addiction, both of which are diseases?
“Or do we want to incarcerate people for having diseases of the brain, particularly talking about nonviolent offenders, knowing that is by far more expensive, knowing that is far less effective than providing treatment in the first place?” White said.
She's predicting more mental health and substance abuse services in local communities. Now, law officers working with the mentally ill must sometimes drive their charges for hours to the nearest center equipped to care for them. To help the people in mental crisis and law enforcement, the department has asked for five new crisis centers across the state at an estimated total cost of $12.5 million.
“I also think we're going to see a continued investment in mental health and substance abuse services to divert anyone from ever coming into contact with the criminal justice system or being incarcerated in the first place,” she said.
She expects continued growth of mental health courts, now located in 16 counties.
Seventy-three of the state's 77 counties now have drug courts that allow nonviolent felony offenders to go through a court-supervised treatment program instead of prison.
White said it makes sense to avoid the nearly $19,000 per year per person cost of incarceration, when possible, by letting mental health court manage the case at a cost of $5,400 yearly or drug court at $5,000 yearly per person.
“Not only is there a cost savings to taxpayers, but they're going to get better outcomes. Which has been proven over and over,” White said.