The Judge’s Order To Discharge Patients Early Presents A Problem For Oregon State Hospital

A federal judge ruled that Oregon State Hospital must start releasing a group of patients every month on Oct. 12 due to overcrowding. The judge ruled on a 20-year-old lawsuit.

Disability Rights Oregon sued the state in 2002, claiming it took too long for mentally ill criminal defendants to get into the state’s primary psychiatric hospital. The state appealed and lost.

Disability Rights Oregon and the Metro Public Defenders Office asked a federal judge for firm timelines for treatment to move people out of the hospital when the issue arose again during COVID-19.

“Aid and assist” patients were arrested for a crime but deemed unfit to defend themselves due to mental illness, so a judge sent them to Oregon State Hospital.

People should spend no more than seven days in jail before being sent to the state hospital, per a 2002 court ruling. The wait is 40 days. Disability Rights Oregon’s Emily Cooper told KGW why this issue must be addressed.

“Prisons don’t treat. Punishing. How do jails keep inmates safe? And they do that by taking away their clothes, belongings, and putting them in isolation rooms, which is hard on anyone’s mental health, Cooper said. “You have harsh jail conditions. People die in jail while waiting for the state hospital. So the court’s 20-year-old seven-day rule was crucial. People can suffer real, serious, irreversible harm while awaiting trial.

Last spring, a 22-year-old man with mental health issues died in Washington County Jail. He stopped eating and drinking in jail and died before being taken to the hospital.

A federal judge set new deadlines for state hospital patients awaiting trial on Sept. 1. Misdemeanants must be released within 90 days, nonviolent felons within six months, and violent felons within a year.

The Judge's Order To Discharge Patients Early
The Judge’s Order To Discharge Patients Early

Cooper said the new rules should give patients enough time for treatment.

“Most people sent to the state hospital for restoration are restored within these time periods,” said Cooper. “We know the hospital has a’ready to place’ list with 60 people they say don’t need to be at the state hospital. People assume that when they go to a state hospital, they will receive comprehensive mental health treatment until they are 100% better, but that’s not true. Patients who are restored to competency know who their attorney, judge, and charges are. They may have untreated mental health issues.

23 patients will be released on Oct. Seventeen face misdemeanours, six nonviolent felonies. They’re all “placeable.” More than 100 people will be released in the following 15 months.

Many mental health specialists worry that patients would wind themselves homeless after release.

“I think that’s a fair issue because many folks on the hospital waitlist were arrested for offences related to homelessness,” Cooper said. They may have been charged with vagrancy or trespassing. Yes, they were houseless and may be again, but there’s no legal or therapeutic basis to detain someone in jail or a psychiatric hospital because they don’t have a home.

DCDA Kevin Barton disagrees with Cooper. He and two other DAs tried to block a judge’s revised timeframes and lost.

“First, where do they go?” Some may think they should go back to jail because they were there before the hospital, Barton added. Some may suggest they shouldn’t go to jail because of a mental health issue, and jail isn’t a healthy place for them. Problematic if they go to jail. If they don’t go to jail, it can be troublesome depending on the offence.

“For example, in Washington County, three people at the state hospital are facing murder charges. Two are past the one-year time limit. So, depending on how this works, murderers, sexual assaulters, domestic abusers, and child abusers could be released back into the community.

Barton added that because a court determined the accused don’t belong in jail, it’s unknown where they might go.

“That’s one way,” Barton said. The state hospital could be replaced by a county hospital. There are 36 counties in Oregon. How quickly can 36 counties build 36 hospitals to do what the state should be doing? And that’s not happening. These resources aren’t in 36 counties. They may not exist anywhere. It’s a lot to ask of the counties in so little time. Because it’s a matter of weeks, the hospital plans to discharge people.

Barton said Oregon State Hospital should expand beyond Salem and Junction City outside Eugene. He said the state hospital needs more capacity and accused hospital executives of a lack of leadership.

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