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Community mental health treatment a must

No one should be kept in jail for months waiting on mental health treatment. Seventeen years ago, it was routine for people with mental illness who were unable to assist in their defense to wait for months in jail to receive court-ordered mental health restoration treatment. Disability Rights Oregon brought a landmark civil rights case that sought to end that practice. We won, and the court said the state hospital needed to accept mentally ill defendants within seven days after an individual has been ordered for restoration treatment.

Earlier this year, as wait times in jail climbed again, we fought to enforce this ruling. Ultimately, the state felt compelled to take action to meet its constitutional obligations and reduced the wait time to less than seven days. These numbers matter so much because they capture the profound impact that time in jail has on the lives of people with mental illness.

For people with mental illness, jail is the worst place in the world to be. People can fall apart quickly when they go without prescribed medication and the supports available in their communities. Solitary is the default placement for people with mental health issues to keep them safe from themselves and others. Time in jail comes at a high cost to the individual and to society.

Today, treatment to help defendants with mental illness become healthy enough to stand trial is available in a few communities in Oregon. Local mental health treatment for defendants is an opportunity to connect people to everything that they’ll need to meet their basic needs once their case is resolved: things like health care, housing, food and transportation. Providing defendants with local mental health treatment makes it more likely that they’ll be able to maintain their good health as they move forward with their lives. Individuals, their families, and their local counties will be the first ones to feel the benefits of these better long-term outcomes.

Unfortunately, the number of local treatment options for defendants with mental illness hasn’t kept pace with the demand for those services. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill to expand these opportunities and limit admission to the state hospital. Ultimately, however, preventing the overuse of jails and the state hospital will require adequate state funding for community options, innovative service development by community mental health programs, and the cooperation of the courts and district attorneys.

We can achieve the greatest impact by addressing the root causes of what’s driving the increase of people with mental illness being caught up in the criminal justice system. Communities across the state are experiencing a gap in local mental health care services and affordable housing. Sufficient housing and health care can help avoid mental health crises that can result in hospitalization or criminal charges. Helping people be able to meet their most basic needs creates a foundation from which people who experience mental illness can stay healthy over the long run.

Everyone who needs mental health care should be able to find it in their community.

Jake Cornett is executive director of Disability Rights Oregon.