Disability advocates, the Oregon Health Authority, county governments, public defenders, district attorneys, state court judges and several large hospital systems are set to meet in federal court Monday to discuss and debate the problems plaguing the Oregon State Hospital.
Capacity issues have strained the state’s psychiatric facility for years.
It may seem the sudden interest from a variety of stakeholders on the long-running case could signal a community effort to bolster mental health care for people in the criminal justice system. But disability advocates worry involvement from prosecutors, judges and hospital systems could thwart a hard-fought settlement with the state hospital.
In September, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mosman agreed to a settlement between disability advocates and the state that changed how long people charged with crimes can stay at the Oregon State Hospital. It’s that order that’s now being questioned by parties who have just recently shown an interest in the case.
“It’s only now the court made a modest order that we have all these other stakeholders suddenly very concerned about what’s happening in this case,” said Jesse Merrithew, a civil rights attorney representing Metropolitan Public Defender.
Twenty years ago, the state’s largest public defense nonprofit and Disability Rights Oregon (then known as the Oregon Advocacy Center) won a victory for people with mental illness who were in the criminal justice system.
A federal judge ruled at the time that the Oregon State Hospital had to admit people within seven days of a state court judge ordering someone unable to aid in their own defense. Many of these defendants are housed in local jails and with untreated mental illnesses that contributed to their alleged crime and arrest.
In the years since the initial court order, the state hospital has fallen out of compliance, leaving people in mental health crises stuck in jail for more than seven days.
In May 2019, Metropolitan Public Defender and Disability Rights Oregon reactivated the litigation. While they’ve pushed the state to come into compliance as soon as possible, the groups have also advocated for longer term solutions. Specifically, they want more community-based mental health treatment. The idea, they argue, is to identify and support people before their mental illness becomes acute, and avoid having people in crisis become part of the criminal justice system.
In August, the Oregon Health Authority, Disability Rights Oregon and Metropolitan Public Defender, announced they’d reached an agreement with the help of an expert Mosman appointed. In September, Mosman signed it.
Mosman’s order reduced the length of time people sent to the state hospital can stay. It allows 90 days for people charged with misdemeanors, up to six months for nonviolent felonies, and one year for violent charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences. After that, the hospital discharged the patients back to the custody of the counties.
Dr. Debra Pinals, director of the Program in Law, Psychiatry and Ethics at the University of Michigan said most people who can be restored to competency — meaning they can assist in their legal defense — should be able to do so within the new timeframes.
After Mosman signed the order, more parties have moved to intervene in the case, with some asking Mosman to dissolve the injunction he signed just two months ago.
District attorneys from Marion, Washington and Clackamas counties moved to intervene in the case, concerned that people accused of crimes will not be able to stand trial or resolve their case.
“The system needs to work properly,” said Billy Williams, Oregon’s former U.S. Attorney who is representing the prosecutors.
But Merrithew said when they reactivated the case in May 2019, they asked for input from some of the same agencies who are now opposing Mosman’s order.
“When people were being held in jails when they should be in the hospital we tried very hard to get other players to weigh in on this,” Merrithew said, noting the only person who assisted was Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett.