Lawsuit Challenges Treatment of Mentally Ill Defendants

Disability Rights Oregon, an advocacy group for those with mental and physical disabilities, joins a growing chorus of those seeking to hold the state of Oregon in contempt over its treatment of mentally ill defendants.  

The group filed suit in federal court on Tuesday, May 14, the latest in a series of lawsuits designed to put pressure on state officials to reform the longstanding practice of jailing mentally ill defendants while awaiting treatment, and then trial.  

An investigation by The Oregonian earlier this year revealed at least 200 such defendants had waited weeks, sometimes months, for admittance to Oregon State Hospital. Almost a third of these were misdemeanor cases, the sentence for which may not have placed them in jail at all. 

In Oregon Advocacy Center v. Mink (2002), the court ruled that mentally ill defendants cannot be jailed indefinitely awaiting treatment, and must be admitted to Oregon State Hospital within one week for “trial fitness treatment”. These defendants require treatment because they have a Constitutional right to assist in their own defense, and sometimes require proper treatment to do so. 

Multiple state officials have stated they do not abide by this one week deadline. Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, has previously testified that his agency does not have a sufficient budget to comply with the one week deadline. However, in the Mink decision, the judge stated plainly that budgetary concerns “cannot justify” the state’s failures. This decision was upheld by federal courts in 2003, reportedly over the objections of Oregon officials. 

A 2015 class action lawsuit against the state of Washington resulted in a $83 million fine against the state. Washington paid this down “before mentally ill defendants and their representatives reached a settlement with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services that [would have required] the state to enact significant mental health care reforms.” 

By Ian MacRonald