Improvements to helping Oregon’s mentally ill defendants advancing

Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon.

Oregon’s judges would have more options to help criminal defendants found unfit to stand trial should legislation approved 26-4 by the Senate earlier this week be passed in the House.

Senate Bill 1575 makes fixes to legislation passed last year which aimed to relieve capacity concerns at the Oregon State Hospital, the state’s psychiatric facility in Salem. As of last week, there were 297 defendants being treated for mental illness at the state hospital, a new high for the facility, according to Micky Logan, legal affairs director. 

An influx of defendants sent to the facility who are found unable to help their own defense caused the Oregon Health Authority to ask Gov. Kate Brown to request Senate Bill 24 during the 2019 session. That legislation required that defendants facing minor charges only be sent to the state hospital if an evaluator found them dangerous to themselves or others. 

The intent was to free up beds at the state hospital for those requiring hospital-level care, but fairly soon after passing, judges found their hands were tied. 

According to Multnomah County Circuit Judge Nan Waller, there have been many cases where defendants needing treatment couldn’t be sent to the Salem hospital or community treatment yet were a risk to public safety.

 “Consequently, the only option in some cases is dismissal,” Waller told Senate mental health committee members. “There are times when that’s an acceptable result, for example, when the only charge is a criminal trespass in the second degree. But when there are public safety concerns, such as a defendant charged with misdemeanor assault or menacing who is acutely symptomatic, this is a worrisome outcome.” 

SB 1575 is the product of months of work by a group representing all three branches of Oregon’s government. The work group identified two major fixes to better connect those found unfit to proceed with local treatment services and keeping them out of the state hospital.

freeing up beds at the State Hospital. 

The legislation would provide for a local mental health assessment for those facing misdemeanor charges to help judges assess their risk to the community. Judges could order defendants to the state hospital if they were considered too dangerous for community care.

The legislation also limits how long a person determined to be unfit for trial can be held in jail. The new process would require judges to decide within seven days whether to order a defendant to the state hospital or instead be released.

“It’s not only taking the load off the state hospital for financial reasons, it’s really (about) what is the right thing for the individuals who need this type of assistance,” said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, who carried the bill in the Senate. “It’s best to keep them in their community if there are services available there. That is where we expect the services to be delivered.”

According to Waller, she will participate in a summit scheduled for March where judges from across Oregon will convene to learn more about the process and discuss best practices. The Oregon Judicial Department will get federal help to develop regional behavioral health and assessment centers. 

“As a judge, I’m heartened by the focus on a population that is complex and too often marginalized,” Waller said. “Having nothing to offer a highly delusional mentally ill defendant other than a return to the streets is the deeply discouraging reality that all of us in the criminal justice and behavioral health systems face daily. We must do better, and I believe we can.” 

Waller said there’s still work to be done to ensure the hydraulics of aid and assist are really working for Oregon’s criminal defendants and the mental health system as a whole. One of the big issues moving forward, she said, is finding resources to ensure community treatment is bolstered.

Contact Reporter Sam Stites: [email protected] or 971-255-2480.