A federal judge in Portland said Tuesday he will rule soon in a case involving admission delays at Oregon State Hospital.
U.S. Chief District Court Judge Michael Mosman heard arguments from mental health advocates who say the state is failing dozens of criminal defendants in need of treatment at the hospital. Instead of getting admitting to the hospital, the defendants are suck in local jails in violation of their due process rights, where plaintiffs say they're getting sicker.
Tuesday's hearing stems from 2002 ruling, when a federal judge found inmates unable to aid in their own defense must be admitted to Oregon’s psychiatric hospital within seven days of a judge's order.
Last month, Disability Rights Oregon and Metropolitan Public Defender filed a lawsuit against the hospital, claiming that wasn't happening.
"Our witnesses will prove to you that the state shouldn’t be held in contempt because the state has taken all reasonable steps," said Renee Stineman, an attorney with the Oregon Department of Justice, at the start of the two and half hour long hearing.
The state called Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen as their lone witness.
He testified to a range of things the state is doing to reduce admission delays, increase capacity for community based mental health care programs, and increasing some capacity at the Oregon State Hospital.
"We will be in compliance -- absent a future spike in admissions -- within 90 days," Allen testified.
The plaintiffs argued that does little for people in jail right now who need mental health treatment. Attorneys argued the delays can cause irreparable harm to people who suffer from mental illness.
The plaintiffs asked Mosman to either force the hospital to admit the inmates immediately or release them from custody.
"To the streets if necessary," Jesse Merrithew, an attorney representing Metropolitan Public Defender, told the judge.
In his cross examination of Allen, Merrithew asked about the dozens of people suffering in jail who are waiting to get into the state hospital.
"Do you concede there will be people held in jails over the next 90 days while you get new beds online,” Merrithew asked.
“I do,” Allen replied.
Allen has also blamed factors outside his control, like the lack of available affordable housing in the state. He said late last year, the state hospital received an unexpected spike in admissions -- something plaintiffs argued was manageable.
"The system should be built to deal with the peaks and valleys," argued Emily Cooper, legal director for DRO. "We don't dispute reasonable steps were taken, we don't think all reasonable steps were taken."
Cooper argued Mosman has the authority to make sweeping rulings that, in her view, would not only fix the immediate admissions problem, but also require the state to have a long term solution so it doesn't fall out of compliance again.
"If the state had done more to build up community services, we may not be here," Cooper said.
Mosman appeared reluctant to find the state in contempt of court. He said the way the criminal justice system deals with people who have mental illness goes beyond just the role of the state hospital.
"Local jails have become the dumping ground for everyone's failures," Mosman said.
The judge focused his questions along how he might help bring about a larger solution. Mosman said he could make it easier for people deemed ready to leave the state hospital to get released, thus making more room for those in jail who need a bed.
Mosman didn't say when he will issue a ruling.