Of the 2,297 bills filed for the upcoming session, one of the best is Senate Bill 1548 by Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah. The bill reorganizes drug courts in Oklahoma, giving the upper hand in decision making to mental health professionals and drug court judges. Under the current law that was passed in 1997, district attorneys are the gatekeepers for drug court, which means they and their assistant district attorneys can block offenders from the drug court program.
The Center for Disease Control released figures recently showing that 798 Oklahomans died from a drug overdose between April 2020 and April 2021, 20 percent more than the previous year. According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, treatment courts are the single most successful intervention in our nation’s history for leading people living with substance use and mental health disorders out of the justice system and into lives of recovery and stability. Instead of viewing addiction as a moral failing, treatment courts view it as a disease. Instead of punishment, they offer treatment.
SB 1548 does four important things. First, it relieves judges of the administrative burden of supervising the program, usually with the help of a drug court coordinator managed by the judge. Most judges would agree the best use of their time and ability is making judicial decisions, not managing executive programs. SB 1548 provides that, in a county or counties with a drug court program, the board of county commissioners shall enter into an administrative contract with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS) for establishing and maintaining the drug court program. Upon signing the contract with ODMHSAS, the commissioners designate a drug court coordinator.
Second, the bill removes the ability of the district attorney to dictate which defendants are entitled to consideration and acceptance by the judge for treatment in drug court. Drug courts are supposed to be removed from the adversarial process of regular court, but whether that happens is quite subjective. Under SB 1548, the judge makes the decision with the assistance and recommendation of mental health professionals. The district attorney and the defense attorney may object, but the decision of the judge is final.
Third, the bill provides that the county shall provide administrative support and oversight for the drug court program and staff by communicating with ODMHSAS, as required by the contract, to monitor the performance and success of the drug court program based upon established formulas, caseload statistics, and performance metrics. This makes the expertise and oversight of the state’s mental health and substance abuse experts available to the drug court program.
Fourth, the bill removes the prohibition against admitting to drug court individuals who have been charged with a violent offense or have a prior violent offense. Sometimes these are cases where drug court could be most beneficial to both the offender and the community. According to the standards of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, if adequate treatment and supervision are available, there is no empirical justification for routinely excluding violent offenders from participation in drug courts.