Oregon lawmakers say they’re going to amend legislation and make it more difficult for judges to send people to the Oregon State Hospital for psychological evaluation and treatment.

The hope, lawmakers said, is that they can secure funding to treat people charged with low-level crimes through community-based mental health programs, reserving the state hospital for defendants with more severe crimes and mental illnesses.

The decision comes a day after a Washington County Circuit Court judge found the state hospital “willfully violated” court orders for not transporting people from the Washington County Jail to the state hospital for treatment within seven days. 

Judges can order defendants in criminal cases to be sent to the Oregon State Hospital for psychological evaluation or to be treated until it’s determined the person can aid in their own defense.

Mental health advocates and attorneys across the state say there are dozens of people unable to aid in their own defense because of mental illness and are awaiting treatment at the state hospital. They say those people languish in jail, often becoming iller while they wait.

“The current situation at the Oregon State Hospital is absolutely unacceptable,” state House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, and state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, said in a joint statement Wednesday. “Failure to properly address this issue has led the state to a perilous point.”

House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, signals her vote on the House floor at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.

House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, signals her vote on the House floor at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

The lawmakers, who chair the judiciary committees in their respective chambers, said they plan to “strengthen” legislation in SB 24, which passed the House on Tuesday.

The lawmakers said their changes “will significantly restrict the ability of individuals who go through municipal courts or are charged with misdemeanors to be sent to the state hospital.”

The lawmakers also said SB 24 was an attempt to address the same issues Judge D. Charles Bailey highlighted in his contempt ruling.

“It saves the state hospital beds for people who are truly dangerous,” Williamson said in an interview with OPB. “It solves the problem only if we fund community mental health providers who can address the needs of people who are accused of violations and misdemeanors.”

Disability Rights Oregon Legal Director Emily Cooper said it’s a step in the right direction.

“We should be encouraging local courts to send people to local treatment options when they’re found unable to aid and assist in their defense,” Cooper said in a statement. “But we also need to make sure that there are local treatment options to send people to. Currently, there’s a huge gap.”

Many counties in Oregon lack mental health services. That means, in some cases, the state hospital is the only place where people can first get a psychological evaluation and then mental health treatment while they move through the criminal justice system.

“Until we create more local mental health care treatment options, we won’t be able to create a more humane and effective system for people with mental illness in the criminal justice system,” Cooper said.

A 2002 federal court order currently requires defendants who can’t assist in their own defense to be admitted to the state hospital within seven days.