People With Mental Illness Are Now Waiting Less Than a Week in Jail Before Admission to Oregon State Hospital

It’s a key milestone in the state’s halting efforts to comply with a two-decade-old court order.

The Oregon Health Authority, which runs the state’s psychiatric hospital, tells WW it believes it’s once again in compliance with the 2002 “Mink Order.” That order, made by a federal judge more than two decades ago, requires the hospital to admit people deemed too mentally ill to defend themselves in court within one week.

For years, the hospital complied. But an increase in the number of those “aid and assist” patients caused wait times to creep up to nearly a month by 2019. So advocates took the state back to court, resulting in a subsequent order by U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman last year requiring the hospital to solve the problem by releasing patients early.

The decision, which was crafted by an outside expert and supported by the state, has been highly controversial. Local officials say they don’t have the facilities or resources to treat or otherwise accommodate the discharged patients, some of whom end up right back in jail.

And for months, the order didn’t even appear to be having the desired effect. The waitlist stayed stubbornly long as the number of referrals rose.

No longer. “Since July 20, 2023, Oregon State Hospital has been able to admit people waiting in jail under aid-and-assist orders within 6.5 days,” OHA communications director Robb Cowie told WW on Friday. “This puts the hospital and Oregon Health Authority in compliance with the 2002 Mink Order.”

The milestone is a step toward ending this latest round of legal scrutiny of the hospital. Mosman’s order requiring the hospital to discharge patients early ends if an external expert determines the hospital has been in compliance for three months—and that eliminating the new release policy wouldn’t jeopardize continued compliance.

Regardless, this milestone is a hard-fought victory for Disability Rights Oregon, which brought the original lawsuit against the hospital two decades ago.

“Everything we’ve asked the judge to order to reach compliance is working,” says Emily Cooper, legal director at DRO. “Disability Rights Oregon will continue monitoring to ensure the hospital remains in compliance.”

Still, there’s concern whether the progress is sustainable and not simply a seasonal swing. Jesse Merrithew, who represents another plaintiff, the Portland nonprofit Metropolitan Public Defenders, says the number of referrals to the hospital has declined in recent months.

And Cooper struck another note of concern. “Early compliance with a federal court order isn’t the same as a sustained, legislative fix.”

Advocates had hoped the state would enshrine the court-ordered early release policy into law. But lawmakers are uninterested, and efforts to do so during the last legislative session went nowhere.

“I don’t support an arbitrary end to somebody’s treatment,” says state Rep. Rob Nosse (D-Portland). “I don’t know many legislators that do.”

He says he’d prefer to solve the underlying problem: Oregon’s lack of mental health treatment beds. Legislators tasked OHA with producing a report on the issue, he says. It’s expected to be released later this year.

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