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Public Defenders Claim Oregon State Hospital Is Violating Court Injunction

The Oregon State Hospital Museum is inside the historic Kirkbride Building on the hospital grounds in Salem.
Chris Lehman
The Oregon State Hospital Museum is inside the historic Kirkbride Building on the hospital grounds in Salem.

The Oregon State Hospital is violating a federal court order as well as the due process rights of criminal defendants, according to a Friday court filing by a public defense nonprofit representing indigent clients in Washington and Multnomah counties.

In 2002, a federal judge ordered that criminal defendants deemed "to be unfit to proceed to trial because of mental incapacities" must be admitted to the Oregon State Hospital within seven days for evaluation.

In the filing in federal court Friday, attorneys for Metropolitan Public Defenders argue that's not happening. In fact, they argue the situation has become worse.

"While the law has not changed since this Court issued its injunction, our understanding of the damage done to individuals suffering from mental illness and going untreated in jails has," wrote attorney Jesse Merrithew, who is representing the public defenders.

The Oregonian/OregonLive reported earlier this year on cases where defendants languished in jails waiting to go to the Oregon State Hospital for mental evaluation and treatment. Some spent more time waiting in jails to get admitted to the hospital than their actual sentences.

Research has shown that incarcerating people with untreated mental illnesses exacerbates their condition, Merrithew wrote.

The court order stems from May 2002, when then U.S. District Court Judge Owen Panner issued a permanent injunction.

"This population has a high suicide risk, and psychosis can be an emergency requiring immediate treatment," Panner wrote.

"Indefinitely imprisoning persons deemed unfit to proceed without adequate treatment is unjust and inhumane. Depriving them of necessary medical treatment increases the likelihood that they may decompensate and suffer unduly," Panner added.

Earlier this year, an investigation by OPB, KUOW and the Northwest News Network found  the leading cause of deaths in Oregon and Washington jails since 2008 was suicide. The news organizations also revealed the rate of deaths was increasing and at least 70% of Northwest inmates who died in the past decade were awaiting trial at the time of their deaths, still considered innocent under the law.

"This Court set an outside limitation of seven days to transport people to [the Oregon State Hospital] because delays of any longer than seven days violate that person’s due process rights," Merrithew wrote in Friday's court filing. "Every single time OSH waits more than seven days to transport someone, it is violating the constitution."

The state hospital has acknowledged it's violating the injunction, Merrithew states.

Fifty-three people are awaiting admission to the state hospital, the court filing notes. Only about 18% of people were being transported to the hospital within seven days, the filing states.

"As Judge Panner rightly observed, staffing and funding levels simply pale in comparison to the suffering and damage done to a person with untreated mental illness, locked in a cage for 23 hours a day," Merrithew wrote.

A hearing in federal court is expected in the coming weeks.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.