Roundup of Oklahoma editorials

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Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

The Journal Record, July 28, 2014

Setting aside bloodlust

An Associated Press story Monday quoted Randy Browning, who witnessed the execution of Kimberly McCarthy, who died peacefully last year after a lethal injection at a Texas prison.

"I'm happy not to share the planet with Kimberly McCarthy," Browning said. "But would I want her to be strung up and tortured? No."

Not all victims' friends and family members are as generous. Last week, Arizona's execution of double-murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood took nearly two hours, but that didn't bother Richard Brown, a relative of the victims.

"This man conducted a horrifying murder, and you guys are going, 'Let's worry about the drugs,'" said Brown. "Why didn't they give him a bullet? Why didn't we give him Drano?"

Brown's view is the prevailing sentiment in Oklahoma.

"I realize this may sound harsh, but as a father and former lawman, I really don't care if it's by lethal injection, by the electric chair, firing squad, hanging, the guillotine, or being fed to the lions," state Rep. Mike Christian, R-Oklahoma City, said in April. "I look forward to justice being served."

They deserve what they get, some say. The convicts did not care about the pain endured by their victims. A painless death is too good for them.

But as Jean Parks, whose sister was murdered, told the North Carolina Legislature last year, "The desire for revenge and retribution is a normal response to losing a loved one to murder. The state has taken on the responsibility of imposing that retribution. But why do we consider it more civilized for the state to take a life for a life than for a surviving family member to do so? Violence perpetuates violence."

A prolonged, painful execution — any execution, for that matter — does nothing to help victims or their families. It only serves to lower Oklahomans to the level of the perpetrator; it demonstrates the pious are no better than the perpetrator.

Executions are more expensive than imprisonment. The average murder rate in death penalty states is 4.7 per 1,000. In states without capital punishment it's 3.7 per 1,000. And there are mistakes: In 2013, 42 people convicted of homicide were exonerated.

Never mind compassion. If capital punishment is more expensive than imprisonment, if convictions are less than foolproof and executions less than humane, and if killing the killer does not deter crime, Oklahomans should set aside their bloodlust in favor of caution, prudence and economy.

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Stillwater NewsPress, July 29, 2014

Lack of education standards

Earlier this year, Oklahoma's legislature killed Common Core, which set math and English standards for public schools.

Now, Oklahoma's State Board of Education cannot agree on a plan to create and adopt new standards. Last week, the state board tabled the new standards process on a 5-1 vote.

It's the second delay. In July, four state board members sued the state over the repeal of Common Core. They argued the legislators had usurped the board's authority. The Oklahoma Supreme Court disagreed, affirming the legislature's repeal.

Oklahoma can't afford delays if the state board wants to have the initial draft completed by June 2015 and a final draft finished by October 2015. It may take years for Oklahoma's public schools to prepare teachers to implement the standards.

The state Department of Education developed the process, which calls for creation of four separate executive committees, each with about two dozen members to work on the standards.

A steering committee will supervise the process and a draft review committee will write them.

Until new standards are developed, Oklahoma schools have reverted to the old Priority Academic Student Skills (PASS) standards that were in place in 2010.

However, the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education have not determined, yet, if the PASS standards are "college and career ready."

Meanwhile, Oklahoma students are paying the price as they fall further and further behind their counterparts in other states. Let's get the process started.

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The Oklahoman, July 29, 2014

Medicaid expansion not a quick fix for mental health services

Recent news stories that underscore Oklahoma's poor mental health statistics have turned up the volume on calls for the state to expand Medicaid. Additional funding would certainly help, but it's a stretch to suggest that Medicaid expansion is a panacea.

Oklahoma has gotten where it is today as a result of legislators treating mental health with a shrug, year after year. In this respect Oklahoma is no different than most states, which also are scrambling for solutions.

An estimated 10 million Americans suffer from serious mental illness. Oklahoma has nearly 33,000 adults diagnosed with untreated severe bipolar disorder, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. Oklahoma has the country's second-highest rate of adults with mental illness — 700,000 to 900,000 adults reported having a mental health issue last year.

About 70 percent of indigent adults, and 40 percent of children, who need mental health treatment don't get it. Terri White, who heads the state's mental health agency, says those percentages would be reduced with additional funding. She's made inroads in recent years in getting lawmakers to understand that Oklahoma's approach to funding her agency must change.

The Kaiser Family Foundation says Oklahoma ranks seventh-lowest in mental health funding per capita. That translates into a lack of resources that puts the severely mentally ill at the front of the line but also hinders efforts to provide early help to those who need it. Mental health issues contribute to Oklahoma's high suicide rate, its abused and neglected children, and its crowded jails and prisons.

About 122,000 Oklahomans with mental health issues would have qualified for Medicaid had it been expanded here, according to the American Mental Health Counselors Association. The state's decision not to take the expansion bait has made Gov. Mary Fallin a regular target of critics.

However, those critics ignore legitimate concerns about the program. Even with the state paying "only" 10 percent of expansion costs, that comes to $850 million over 10 years, according to one estimate, money that would be diverted from schools, roads and public safety. There's also good reason to suspect the federal government will start shifting more costs to the states, given national deficit spending and debt levels.

Fallin has increased funding to the state's mental health agency in recent years. Among other things, this has aided suicide prevention efforts and provided additional urgent care and crisis centers. USA Today, in its continuing series about the mental health crisis in America, noted that police agencies in Oklahoma traveled nearly 1 million miles last year transporting mentally ill offenders to locations where beds were available. These transports increased by 45 percent from 2009 to 2011, taxing manpower and funding.

Medicaid expansion is no quick fix for mental health services. For starters, states have some leeway in what services they cover. More importantly, expansion would strain the mental health care delivery system beyond its capacity to respond. A February report by McClatchy News Service noted that as millions of Americans gain health coverage through Medicaid expansion, "experts say their higher rates of mental health and substance abuse disorders will be difficult to treat due to a lack of counselors and behavioral therapists who accept Medicaid patients."

In short, Medicaid rates paid to providers are insufficient. Higher rates would help, but that would only increase the state's outlay for Medicaid. It's a myth to think Medicaid expansion will overcome deficiencies in mental health care services.

More needs to be done, and can be. State budget writers can start by paying close attention — really listening — when Terri White lays out her agency's needs and her many ideas for improving mental health outcomes in Oklahoma.

Without question, making gains in this area will provide long-term dividends to help make Oklahoma a better place to live, work and raise a family.

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