Judge finds Oregon violates mentally ill defendants’ rights
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A judge is holding Oregon’s public psychiatric hospital in contempt of court, ruling that hospital leaders “willfully violated” court orders to swiftly admit defendants in need of mental health evaluations and treatment.
The contempt ruling was issued Tuesday by Judge D. Charles Bailey of Washington County Circuit Court, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.
It’s the sternest and most consequential rebuke yet of the state’s lapses handling the rise in criminal cases with mentally ill defendants.
At issue were orders Bailey handed down in four felony cases instructing the Oregon State Hospital to admit the defendants for evaluations or treatment so they could stand trial. Those orders built upon a federal court ruling requiring the hospital admit defendants within seven days to avoid unconstitutionally long jail stays.
Hospital administrators did not abide by Bailey’s orders, saying that was because the hospital was full, among other limitations.
The ruling issued Tuesday shows Bailey was unconvinced by those explanations.
The judge wrote, for example, that state officials had “known about the problem for years” but did not take sufficient action to solve it. And he cited the federal decision that states the violation of a person’s due process rights cannot be blamed on a lack of funds, staff or facilities.
“The evidence was clear,” Bailey wrote, that the hospital “voluntarily and openly chose not to comply with the orders, thus, is in contempt of court.”
He ordered the state be fined $100 a day for each defendant kept in jail beyond the one-week legal cutoff.
Press secretaries for Gov. Kate Brown, Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek didn’t return a request for comment from the newspaper.
Patrick Allen, who as the Oregon Health Authority director oversees the state psychiatric hospital, said he is disappointed in Tuesday’s ruling. Asked whether he believes the state violated peoples’ rights in these cases, Allen said, “I should be careful in answering that,” noting the state may appeal.
Allen said officials are continuing efforts to expand non-institutionalized care for defendants with mental illness. “We really honestly think we’ve been working really hard pulling every lever we can pull to try to deal with this issue,” he said, adding, “This is going to be a really difficult problem for us to solve.”
Allen said blame for the flood of mentally ill defendants to the Oregon State Hospital lies in large part with prosecutors, who decide to charge people with crimes, and judges, who order defendants to the hospital for trial fitness treatment.
“So much of this problem is not in our control,” Allen said. “It’s controlled by prosecutors and judges.”
The defense attorney who argued the state should be held in contempt, Amanda Thibeault, said Bailey’s ruling “in no uncertain terms expresses that our clients’ rights were violated.”
“For too long the Oregon Legislature and the agencies it funds have placed other priorities ahead of protecting the rights of the most vulnerable in society, including persons like the defendants in this contempt matter,” Thibeault said.
The state faces another contempt hearing next week in federal court. Lawyers in that case are seeking to enforce the 16-year-old court order requiring speedy psychiatric hospital admissions, which Bailey’s order built upon.
A similar case proceeded in Washington State, resulting in a judge imposing $85 million in fines and forcing legislative reforms.
Information from: The Oregonian/OregonLive, http://www.oregonlive.com