The Tulsa County Sheriff and more than 40 partners have had a successful three years under the Stepping Up Initiative.
Tulsa County signed on to the national effort to put fewer people with mental illness in jail in 2015. Mental Health Association Oklahoma CEO Mike Brose said they need treatment but are disproportionately represented behind bars.
"People with serious mental illness make up about 5 percent of the general population, but incarcerated settings, it comes up to about 18 percent," Brose said.
Women In Recovery 2016 graduate Lindsay McAteer is one of the success stories. McAteer said after a lifelong struggle with mental illness, she could have gone to prison for 12 years to life on drug charges. Instead, she has a job and her son.
"It’s my hope that more and more men and women can be offered treatment instead of punishment. Prison is not the answer. If we really want to strengthen our community, treatment is the right thing to do," McAteer said.
Achievements of the past three years include Tulsa County detention officers receiving crisis intervention training, first responders getting access to mental health resources through an app and partners discovering the gaps in the county's mental health system.
Plans going forward call for a new assessment center for people with mental illness arrested for low-level crimes, reducing the time spent in jail if they are taken there and speeding up treatment referrals.
Tulsa County Sheriff's Office Mental Health Coordinator Michelle Robinette said the challenge is selling everyone in the criminal justice system on outside-the-box ideas.
"Instead of saying, ‘Why not?’ which is where we’re at, people that have to be with us to approve them say, ‘Why? Why change it if it’s not broken?’ Well, it is broken," Robinette said.
Tulsa was the first Oklahoma county to participate in the Stepping Up Initiative.