Collaboration Aims To Help Mentally Ill Caught In Criminal Justice System

A group of Oregon health officials, law enforcement and legislators discussed Wednesday how to provide supportive services for people with mental health issues to keep them from being locked up.

Oregon state officials held the first steering committee meeting Wednesday to improve how the state’s criminal justice and behavioral health systems treat people experiencing a mental health crisis.

Chaired by Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen and Marion County Sheriff Jason Myer, the 28-member steering committee aims to break down silos among the state’s law enforcement, health care and judicial systems to provide treatment for mentally ill people and keep them from repeatedly ending up behind bars or in an emergency department.

The committee’s efforts are part of the federally funded Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a nonpartisan effort to increase public safety. The committee plans to put forth policy proposals in February for the Legislature to consider during the 2019 session.

Too many people with mental health needs are ending up in an incarceration system that was not designed to deal with them, Allen said.

“The criminal justice system was designed to prevent, protect against and prosecute criminal offenses,” he said in a statement. “It was not designed to treat mental illness or substance addiction. The best way to support people with behavioral health needs is to connect them to treatment in their local communities.”

“We know that for somebody who is having a mental health crisis, that jail is not the right place for them,” Myers said.

The collaboration announced Wednesday among health officials, law enforcement, lawmakers and others represents a new way of collaborating across the system, Allen said at a press conference at the state Capitol. The steering committee includes representatives from county governments, jails, The Confederate Tribes of Grand Ronde, mental health and addiction peer groups, legislators, judges and law enforcement.

Oregon has already completed a justice reinvestment project, during which it slowed prison growth and expanded programs to help people succeed in the community.

“By focusing on the intersection of the behavioral health and criminal justice systems in this new model of reinvestment, we can continue to improve both health and public safety,” Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement.

Brown is the former president of the Council of State Governments, a nonprofit that’s partnering with Oregon on the initiative. Funded by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau and The Pew Charitable Trusts, the nonprofit is focused on preventing people already in the criminal justice system from returning to prison.

Members of the committee expressed concerns Wednesday on the limited scope of the project. They said they also want to focus on solutions for preventing people with behavioral health concerns from getting into the criminal justice system in the first place.

Allen told the group that this process will likely open opportunities to make a difference elsewhere. “Collectively, we all run a lot of stuff,” Allen said.

The group is using jail booking and Oregon State Hospital data to understand how many people have frequent contact Oregon’s criminal justice system, with a goal of understanding that group’s health care needs. They discussed the need to provide permanent supportive housing, where people experiencing mental illness or substance abuse disorder can get access to social support, drug addiction and career services.

“What we’re talking about today is long overdue,” Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, said. “One of the most difficult things to do is to bring everyone together to share data."

Winters and Sen. President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, emphasized the need make mental health awareness “more mainstream” by bringing people who struggle with substance abuse disorder and other mental illnesses into the community.

“The lack of support that exists within our communities is staggering,” Winters said.

Creating support in the community means finding solutions that can be implemented across state health and criminal justice systems, Allen said.

“I’m really hopeful that by bringing all of those voices together…that we can make meaningful progress on this issue,” Allen said.

You can reach Jessica Floum at Jess@thelundreport.org.

 

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