The Public Policy Word of the Summer Is “Deflection”

In Portland, the definition is evolving, and it’s gotten more teeth over the last two weeks.

VERSION OF DIVERSION: Keeping people out of jail is still a goal under Oregon drug laws. (Blake Benard)

deflection (noun):

to turn (something) aside especially from a straight course or fixed direction. —Merriam-Webster

deflection program:

a collaborative program between law enforcement agencies and behavioral health entities that assists individuals who may have substance use disorder, another behavioral health disorder or co-occurring disorders, to create community-based pathways to treatment, recovery support services, housing, case management or other services. —Oregon House Bill 4002

The word of the summer in Multnomah County is “deflection.” The fixed direction county officials want to deflect people from is jail.

Facing public outcry, the Oregon Legislature undid some of Measure 110 this year and recriminalized hard drugs, with the proviso that Oregon counties assemble programs that deflect people from jail if they get caught using fentanyl and meth.

But figuring out what deflection means for Portland is tougher than picking up the dictionary or looking up Oregon law. At a meeting in late May, Multnomah County commissioners spent much of a two-hour hearing trying to pin down a definition. It’s important that they do so soon. House Bill 4002, the legislation that amended Measure 110, requires that counties be ready to do some serious deflection by Sept. 1 because bill writers don’t want to refill the jails.

“Every time I hear about it, I get more confused,” County Commissioner Sharon Meieran said at the meeting.

She’s not alone. Many Portlanders are puzzled, too, especially those who live near an old Precision Images printing plant on the corner of Southeast Sandy Boulevard and 9th Avenue in the Buckman neighborhood, where deflection is going to happen under a two-year lease. The “treatment readiness center” planned there will provide “a location for deflection while a larger continuum of care is built that will include sobering and other services,” the county said in a press release last week.

After the announcement, several WW readers wrote in to ask what would happen to people dropped off by cops at the new site. A May 23 email from Alicia Temple, the “HB 4002 adviser” to County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson, offers some clues.

“Deflection success for the purposes of avoiding arrest and further criminal justice involvement is defined as an individual being connected to services,” Temple wrote. “Examples of what could be successful deflection included an individual going to a drop-off center or meeting with a peer outreach worker at the moment of law enforcement interaction.”

And, Temple wrote, “Deflection success does not require proof of an assessment or specific follow-up steps be reported to the criminal justice system.”

Asked for specifics about deflection, the county sent a 500-word email describing what it knew so far. First off, when people show up or are dropped off at the deflection center, they will in fact be required to undergo screening and get referred to services, the county said.

That’s different from what unnamed county officials told The Oregonian last month: That “people will not be required to undergo a substance use screening or take part in treatment.”

What happened?

“It changed,” county spokeswoman Julie Sullivan-Springhetti said in an email. “Our work is evolving, and we revised how this system will function and will continue to do so.”

As directed by the Legislature, deflection is being defined and implemented by a group comprising representatives from the county, the district attorney’s office, and local behavioral health groups. They haven’t figured out how many times a person can be deflected, but they will not have unlimited chances, the county says. According to experts, people need multiple tries at sobriety, so it will be more than one.

But deflection isn’t Measure 110 lite, the county said; rather, it’s a “complete break.”

“Before HB 4002, law enforcement could not interdict anyone,” the county says. “They could only hand a person a citation and a piece of paper with a number to call. Now, law enforcement has the tools to act in the moment.”

The harder line suggests the deflection plan has evolved a lot since Alicia Temple wrote her email. State Rep. Rob Nosse (D-Southeast Portland) says he’s pleased with the direction that deflection is taking. Nosse has skin in the game. He worked on HB 4002, and the new deflection center is in his district.

“Some of my voters are a little grouchy about the temporary siting in Southeast Portland,” Nosse tells WW. “I’ve told them that this isn’t a place where you can just show up. I think this is a good thing. I feel like we’re on track.”

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