One of the biggest problems in Oregon’s prisons is the incarceration of people who have mental illnesses or drug addictions.

Police and political leaders agree: They should receive specialized care, not incarceration.

When a police officer arrests someone on the street for violent or threatening behavior, they don’t have many options for where to take them — even when they suspect mental illness and not criminality is the problem.

Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney in his office at the Capitol on March 23, 2017.

Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney in his office at the Capitol on March 23, 2017.

Julie Sabatier/OPB

What that means is about half of all inmates locked up in Oregon have serious mental illnesses.

Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney said  a new committee is going to look at the problem and suggest monumental change.

“Some of our priorities are going to shift in criminal justice dramatically … ’cause we know we’re locking up way too many people and keeping them a long time and many of them are mentally ill. So that is going to shift,” he said.

The so-called Behavioral Health Justice Reinvestment Steering Committee will come up with policy recommendations for the 2019 legislative session.

Oregon’s health authority and criminal justice departments have agreed to share data with the committee.

“We know that when we make meaningful change in behavioral health treatment and addiction recovery, we lift a burden off of our prisons, our hospitals, and our law enforcement,” said Governor Kate Brown, who is facing a tight race against Republican gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler.

“Oregon successfully used justice reinvestment to slow prison growth and expand programs that help people succeed outside of prison. 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.”

Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen is serving on the Behavioral Health Justice Reinvestment Steering Committee.

“The criminal justice system was designed to prevent, protect against and prosecute criminal offenses. It was not designed to treat mental illness or substance addiction,” said Allen.

“The best way to support people with behavioral health needs is to connect them to treatment in their local communities. The Justice Reinvestment process will allow us to develop solutions that better promote individual recovery while preserving community safety.”

Senate Republican Leader Jackie Winters is also a member of the Behavioral Health Justice Reinvestment Steering Committee.

“Studies have shown that a small percentage of people make up a disproportionate share of the costs to these systems,” she said.

“By identifying this population of people, we can develop proactive strategies to improve results and their quality of life at a lower cost.”