The Oregon State Hospital underwent a $280 million reconstruction effort that transformed the decrepit institution into a modern, chaste facility. Beth Nakamura/Staff
Josh McCarthy, a public defender who represents about half the defendants on the Multnomah County aid and assist docket, said officials have for too long maintained a “head in the sand” approach to Oregon’s mentally ill defendants.
“Mentally ill people wasting time in jail on misdemeanors is far too common and an extraordinary waste of time and money,” McCarthy said.
“The major problem is the capacity of the state hospital and the capacity of local social service providers,” he continued. “Every misdemeanor defendant who goes [to the state hospital] on some dumb case is taking up a bed and delaying the services for someone who needs it much more.”
It was an easy problem to see coming. A decade ago, Courtney, the Senate president, was instrumental in securing $280 million to renovate and expand the decrepit Oregon State Hospital. At the time, advocates for the mentally ill warned state officials against doubling down on institutionalization. Money should instead flow to the stepped-down, community-based treatment that mentally ill people have a right to, and which is also less expensive for taxpayers, said advocates including Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland and Chris Bouneff of the Oregon chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
But lawmakers did not make it so. Reluctance for wholesale change and the zero-sum game of writing state agency budgets played a role in officials’ foot dragging. So police officers, prosecutors and judges feel they have few ways to help the mentally ill homeless people flooding their courtrooms.
“There’s not a whole lot of options,” said Jason Myers, the Marion County sheriff.
Myers, who has worked in Oregon law enforcement for more than 30 years, recalled the state’s formerly vast system of mental hospitals that warehoused the mentally ill in often horrid conditions: Dammasch State Hospital, the Fairview Training Center and other facilities.
“All of those places closed,” Myers said, “but I don’t think any of the resources flowed to the community."
Courtney acknowledges the state does not give county mental health departments enough money for community-based treatment centers. “We are not funding mental health to the extent we should at the local level,” he said.
Betsy Johnson, a state senator who is co-chairwoman of the Oregon Legislature’s budget committee, agrees. “I believe this is an area that cries out for legislative scrutiny,” she said this month, weeks before the Legislature convened its 2019 session.
"To criminalize these behaviors that are caused by mental health issues or substance abuse issues or both is inhumane,” said state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, the other budget committee co-chairwoman. “And it's unproductive because we're repeating the same process over and over again with no improvement in people's well-being. Last but not least, it's expensive.”
Despite lawmakers’ apparent dismay, it’s unclear they will take sufficient action to change the status quo. For her part, Steiner Hayward said she is working on a bill that intends to more directly address the aid and assist crisis statewide. “We’re looking at a whole host of things,” she said. “The list is about as long as your arm.”
Meanwhile, the aid and assist docket continues piling up in Multnomah County Circuit Judge Nan Waller’s courtroom, a dimly lit theater of justice on the second floor of the jail building in downtown Portland.