Oregon’s Waitlist for Mental Hospital Is Growing at Nation’s Third-Highest Rate

The Wall Street Journal highlights Oregon’s crisis as jails warehouse people too mentally ill to stand trial.

LAMPLIGHT: Oregon State Hospital campus in Salem. (Brian Burk)

Yesterday, a Wall Street Journal report illustrated the scale of the crisis in Oregon’s jails, which warehouse mentally ill inmates awaiting beds at the state psychiatric hospital. Until these patients can be “restored to competency,” they cannot face trial, frustrating prosecutors and local administrators who say there’s nowhere to put them.

To determine the scope of the nationwide problem, WSJ asked each state’s health authority in March how many people were waiting and how much that number had grown in the past four years. Oregon’s grew more than 1,300%, third-most in the country. It trailed only Louisiana and West Virginia.

The report highlights how badly Oregon’s mental health system has crumbled during the pandemic. In response, policymakers have earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars for new programs. And, last year, Oregon State Hospital began releasing patients early, a result of a compromise brokered with advocates and signed by a federal judge.

It hasn’t yet had the desired result of eliminating the hospital’s waitlist, however. There’s simply too many new patients being sent its way.

Other states have tried different fixes. Some are building more state psychiatric beds, others are allowing patients to be restored to competency inside jails.

So far, Oregon policymakers have rejected both options.

The situation is infuriating prosecutors and judges, who say they’re left with no good options in cases where people with mental illness are accused of violent crimes.

In Washington County, prosecutors are demanding that someone—either the hospital or jail—must provide the medication and legal training necessary to bring cases to trial. In two recent instances, judges have agreed.

On Tuesday, Washington County Circuit Judge Janelle Wipper ordered the state hospital to delay the early discharge of Lisa Akers, who is accused of shooting two people and killing one in 2020. Prosecutors had previously argued that the hospital was negligent in treating Akers, and this week Wipper concurred.

Last week, Washington County Presiding Judge Kathleen J. Proctor ordered a mentally ill man, Ian Tunger, be restored to competency in jail pending transfer to a county treatment facility, a practice Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett has previously said violates state statute. “We will comply with the judge’s order, and I remain convinced community restoration in the jail is contrary to Oregon law,” Garrett tells WW.

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