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Jail wait times for people experiencing mental illness plummet

Court-ordered Oregon State Hospital discharge deadlines are having an effect, group says
Large red building, the Oregon State Hospital
Oregon State Hospital in Salem. | BEN BOTKIN/THE LUND REPORT
August 29, 2023

A civil rights group says the Oregon State Hospital is meeting federal requirements intended to prevent people experiencing mental illness accused of crimes from languishing in jail.  

Disability Rights Oregon issued a statement Friday pointing to recently released data showing the state’s psychiatric hospital is complying with a 2002 federal court order requiring it to admit within seven days patients who need treatment to “aid and assist” in their own defense against criminal charges.  

The data shows that by the end of July, no aid-and-assist patient waited more than seven days for admission to the state hospital. The average wait for these patients was 3.5 days for July. That’s down from the 26-day average wait in 2019, the year Disability Rights Oregon renewed its previous litigation after the state hospital fell out of compliance with the seven-day admission requirement.   

Emily Cooper, Disability Rights Oregon legal director, told The Lund Report that the numbers are a “big deal” because they mean that for the first time in three years the state hospital is in compliance with the 2002 mandate, known as the “Mink order.” But she said time will tell if it holds. 

“We’ve had one month, and it could have been a fluke month,” she said. “It's really hard to say, but we’re cautiously optimistic.”

Wait times were significantly longer in May and June, up to 42 days, she pointed out. But Cooper said the data is a sign that a controversial order U.S. Judge Michael Mosman issued  last year and modified in July is working. 

The order, based on recommendations from an independent expert, limits how long the state hospital can spend housing and treating aid and assist patients in an effort to restore them to competency for trial. Cooper said the order helped clear the admissions bottleneck by opening beds.

The state hospital has been able to admit aid-and-assist patients within 6.5 days since July 20, Oregon Health Authority spokesperson Tim Heider told The Lund Report in a brief email. 

“This puts the hospital and Oregon Health Authority (OHA) in compliance with the 2002 Mink Order,” he said. 

The order has been criticized by local officials for releasing patients who may still be a danger to themselves or others back to communities that are ill-equipped to manage them. Mosman’s order expires in December, two months before the Legislature is scheduled to meet in Salem. 

A bill that would have inserted state hospital discharge deadlineslines into state law stalled last session. But Cooper praised staff at the Oregon Health Authority for trying to fix the admission problem and said she’s optimistic that lawmakers will take action. 

“We were the first state in the country to say, ‘We do not want people with mental illness languishing in jail where they face irreparable harm,’”  she said. “This is a chance again for Oregon to step out and show other states that this is how you fix this problem — this is how you protect some of the most vulnerable citizens.”

But Cooper said that if Mosman’s order expires and aid and assist patients remain in jail longer than seven days, she’ll be back in court. 

You can reach Jake Thomas at [email protected] or via Twitter @jakethomas2009.