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Leaving mentally ill in jail unacceptable

Oregon’s justice system has a dismal track record when it comes to caring for the mentally ill, and a new report in The Oregonian shows it’s not getting any better.

A newsroom analysis of public records obtained from the Oregon State Hospital showed county jail and state hospital officials failed more than 200 times since January 2018 to comply with a federal court order requiring mentally ill defendants to be moved into treatment within seven days. As a result, mentally ill people, some charged only with misdemeanors, spent too much time in county jails, in violation of their constitutional rights.

The reasons are depressingly mundane: The state hospital in Salem often does not have beds available, county sheriffs’ departments don’t have the staff to transport prisoners on a frequent basis, and court clerks are late filing the necessary paperwork. That’s no excuse.

Often, defendants are ordered into “trial fitness treatment” aimed at getting them to a point where they can assist in their defense, a legal requirement before criminal cases can proceed. But this is not happening in a timely fashion.

In one case uncovered by the newspaper, a schizophrenic homeless woman from Washington County waited a week past the deadline to be moved to Salem, then spent two months in the state hospital before she was deemed fit for court. Her offense: riding public transportation without paying the fare. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation. Cost to the taxpayers: $80,000.

In Jackson County, one misdemeanor defendant spent 43 days in jail before entering the state hospital for treatment; another waited 36 days. In both cases, paperwork from the court was late. Jackson County transports to Salem only on Thursdays, because transports require two deputies and a four-hour drive one way, taking those deputies out of service.

The seven-day deadline for moving mentally ill defendants into treatment was imposed in a 2003 appeals court decision upholding a federal district court ruling a year earlier.

There are multiple solutions to this problem. One is building more secure treatment facilities around the state, a costly step lawmakers have struggled to accomplish. Another is re-examining the way the system deals with mentally ill people in the first place.

There is no rational explanation for locking up a schizophrenic person for more than two months for failing to pay bus fare. Lawmakers, courts and public health officials need to find non-jail options that meet the needs of mentally ill Oregonians while protecting the public at the same time.