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Lawmakers approve $4.1M to resolve mental health suit

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OKLAHOMA CITY – A $4.1 million appropriation was quietly tucked away in the state budget in anticipation of resolving a lawsuit alleging Oklahoma’s mental health agency is not providing timely treatment to county jail inmates.

House Appropriations and Budget Committee Chairman Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, said the funds in House Bill 2929 were allocated to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services in the event that the state resolved the lawsuit during the legislative interim.

The federal lawsuit filed last year alleges the agency and the Oklahoma Forensic Center in Vinita have not provided timely court-ordered competency restoration services to inmates in county jails.

The plaintiffs, who are the guardian ad litems of four inmates awaiting competency restoration treatment, are not seeking monetary damages, but want the state to develop a remedial plan to reduce wait times for competency evaluations and treatment.

They allege inmates’ state and federal constitutional rights and protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act have been violated.

“Scores of presumed-innocent Oklahomans who experience severe mental illness are languishing in county jails awaiting competency restoration treatment for prolonged periods that far exceed constitutional limits,” according to the lawsuit. “Many have waited several months to receive the restorative treatment required by law.

“Some have waited more than a year. Almost all are indigent.”

Jails, which are not equipped for treatment, have become de facto mental health wards, the suit alleges.

During budget negotiations, legislators mentioned that it could cost more than the $4.1 million. The state could be facing significant fines as well, according to the discussions.

Projections indicate resolving the issue could cost as much as $45 million over five years, Wallace said in an interview with Oklahoma Voice on Tuesday.

But a lot of things have to happen before those funds would be used, Wallace said.

That could include requiring a court or a judge to approve a consent decree, Wallace said.

A consent decree is an agreement among the parties to resolve the lawsuit.

A consent decree could include competency remodeling of county jails and staff training, he said.

It could also involve creating a plan similar to the multi-year Pinnacle Plan, Wallace said.

The Pinnacle Plan began in 2013 to settle a federal class action lawsuit against the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.

It was designed to improve the state’s foster care system.

Paul DeMuro, a Tulsa attorney, represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“I am grateful the appropriation was made, and it is a needed appropriation,” DeMuro said.

He declined to comment further.

The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services did not respond to requests for comment.

Oklahoma Voice Editor Janelle Stecklein contributed to this report.

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