Disability group accuses Marion County of thwarting federal court order over mental health patients

A long-running case involving patients accused of crimes who need treatment in Oregon’s psychiatric hospital appeared to have been resolved through negotiations and court orders over the past year and a half.

But now Marion County courts are thwarting an agreement designed to ease overcrowding at the Oregon State Hospital, threatening to undermine months of negotiations and subsequent U.S. District Court orders, the advocacy group Disability Rights Oregon said Thursday.

Disability Rights Oregon filed a motion in U.S. District Court in Portland, accusing Marion County courts of ignoring a federal court timeline for discharging patients facing charges. 

Last September, a U.S. District Court judge ordered that patients accused of misdemeanors be treated for up to three months, that those facing nonviolent felony accusations stay in the hospital up to nine months and that those accused of more serious felonies have up to 12 months of treatment. After that, they’re supposed to be released back to their communities under the assumption that they have improved enough to assist their attorney in their own defense. These are called aid-and-assist patients because the courts consider that they are not mentally competent to stand trial. 

Marion County judges have blocked the timely release of some patients, with Marion County Sheriff’s officials declining to transport them from the hospital, Disability Rights Oregon said. Oregon State Hospital’s main campus is in Salem, and Marion County officials have jurisdiction over cases in their county.

At stake is the supremacy of federal court over lower courts and the functioning of Oregon’s beleaguered state mental health hospital, the group said. Advocates also worry about the patients’ constitutional rights. And at the heart of the problem is Oregon’s inadequate mental health system, which lacks residential beds for all who need them, something the Legislature has tried to address by allocating hundreds of millions of dollars for mental health and addiction treatment.

The Oregon State Hospital, where most aid-and-assist patients are treated, is a key pillar of the state’s behavioral health system. Lacking staff, it has suffered from a shortage of beds for decades.

In June, the state hospital had about 690 patients each day, nearly filling all of the 700 available beds in Salem and a satellite campus in Junction City, public records obtained by the Capital Chronicle shows. Those patients are primarily aid-and-assist cases. The hospital also treats people who are found guilty except for insanity and those who are civilly committed.  

Disability Rights Oregon originally sued the state in 2002 to get the hospital to admit aid-and-assist patients more quickly. Languishing in jail, they were being robbed of their constitutional rights  and suffered mental harm, with some commiting suicide, advocates said. U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mosman, who’s overseeing the case, ordered that they be admitted within seven days. But then they could end up stuck there, jamming the system.

“This all takes place against the backdrop of a very long standing effort to clear out the hospital and make it more functional,” Tom Stenson, deputy legal director of Disability Rights Oregon told the Capital Chronicle. “If every judge and every district attorney can put as many people into the hospital whenever they want for however long they want with no restrictions, we’re never going to clear out the hospital.”

A Marion County lawyer involved in the case did not respond by late afternoon to a request for comment. An Oregon State Hospital spokeswoman did not respond to several questions about aid-and-assist patients either. 

In its filing Thursday, Disability Rights Oregon included Marion County Circuit Court orders to keep three patients at the hospital longer. In one case, Judge Audrey Broyles said the person should be held for six months beyond their scheduled U.S. District Court-ordered discharge date. She said the person, accused of attempted kidnap, assault and aggravated harassment, posed a threat to Marion County.

“By clear and convincing evidence, there is a danger of physical injury or sexual victimization to the victim or a member of the public if the defendant is discharged from OSH,” Broyles wrote.

District attorneys from Clackamas, Marion and Washington counties have opposed the discharge timelines, worrying that the release of aid-and-assist patients could pose a public safety threat. 

Officials with community mental health programs, which serve people when they exit the state hospital, have said the tighter timelines for hospital discharges put local programs with limited resources under more stress and unable to serve everyone adequately.

Mosman recently softened the discharge deadlines in some cases. 

Jake Cornett, executive director of Disability Rights Oregon, said that most counties statewide have allowed the release of aid-and-assist patients on time, with county sheriff’s officials transporting patients back to their county where their cases are located.

But five Marion County aid-and-assist patients remain at the state hospital beyond their discharge date, Stenson said, and some have been waiting for months to be released. 

“The idea that judges and district attorneys can ignore a federal court order seems to be limited to Marion County,” Stenson said. “We don’t want people to linger there because people don’t know what to do with them.” 

He said more aid-and-assist patients will end up in jail cells, awaiting admission.

“It’s going to waste valuable state resources,” Stenson said. 

Reporter Ben Botkin contributed to this report.

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