Judge Finds State Hospital In Contempt Over Mentally Ill Defendants

A court ruling on Tuesday, June 4 to hold the Oregon State Hospital (OSH) in contempt set off a week-long crisis over how the state treats mentally ill defendants. The judge ruled the public hospital was “willfully violating” a rule to admit within seven days defendants who are currently unable to “aid and assist” in their own defense.   

The Advocate reported in May that Disability Rights Oregon (DRO) filed suit against state health officials, claiming that mentally ill defendants have a Constitutional right to a “speedy trial,” and that precedents in state law require officials to provide them with treatment to be able to “aid and assist” in their own defense. The case cited by DRO, Oregon Advocacy Center v. Mink (2002), is the basis on which the judge made this ruling. 

Oregon Health Authority (OHA) director Patrick Allen, who expressed disappointment in the ruling earlier in the week, called on Governor Kate Brown on Friday, June 7 to help with what he called a “capacity crisis” at the state psychiatric hospital.  

Oregon House Representatives Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland) and Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene) announced the day after the ruling that they wanted to “strengthen” Senate Bill 24, passed recently to address some of these same issues. They want to send misdemeanor-level offenders to mental health services in their home counties rather than the state hospital, to reduce overcrowding. But, as DRO legal director Emily Cooper pointed out, that depends on counties even having the appropriate mental health services in the first place. 

“As a whole, it’s not making much of a change,” says Sarah Radcliffe, an attorney with DRO, about SB 24, “[It] is a step in the right direction, but it won’t solve the problem on its own.” 

The judge’s order will fine the OHA $100 per day, per defendant kept in jail beyond seven days. The daily total is currently $400, for the four defendants included in the judge’s ruling. However, investigations earlier this year by The Oregonian revealed upwards of 200 cases of mentally ill defendants who were left in jail for weeks, sometimes months, awaiting treatment. 

By Ian MacRonald