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Federal Judge Ends Lawsuit Against Oregon State Hospital

<p>The Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Ore., is pictured on Thursday, June 27, 2019. Legislation to reduce wait times at the hospital have cut some people off from the mental health care they need.</p>

Bryan M. Vance

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The Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Ore., is pictured on Thursday, June 27, 2019. Legislation to reduce wait times at the hospital have cut some people off from the mental health care they need.

In an order signed this week, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mosman denied a request to hold a future hearing on the Oregon State Hospital's compliance with long standing federal court order, effectively ending litigation against the state-run psychiatric facility.

In May, Metropolitan Public Defender and Disability Rights Oregon filed a federal lawsuit against the state hospital. They argued the hospital was violating a 2002 federal court order that requires criminal defendants who need mental health treatment gain admission to the facility within seven days for treatment.

The plaintiffs argued dozens of people found to be too mentally ill to aid in their own defense were languishing in local jails longer than a week, where they were getting sicker without the treatment they needed.

In his ruling, Mosman also denied the two nonprofits' request for attorneys fees.

He said the state hospital has been in compliance with the federal injunction for 16 years and noted the original order didn't call for on-going monitoring.

"The noncompliance lasted until July 25, 2019, a period of about nine months," Mosman wrote.

At a June 11 hearing in Portland, Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen, whose agency oversee the hospital, acknowledged the state was out of compliance. But he also outlined efforts to expand capacity.

By late July, state officials were once again admitting criminal defendants to the state hospital within seven days.

The Oregon Health Authority was likely aided by Senate Bill 24, which passed in the 2019 legislative session and effectively made it more difficult for some misdemeanor defendants to get admitted into the hospital. The legislation also helped reduce wait times at the Oregon State Hospital.

But the new law has had the unintended consequence of denying some criminal defendants any mental health treatment. That's put more pressure on local jurisdictions to provide mental health care in cases that don't meet requirements for state hospital admission.

"The judge’s decision affirms all the hard work that’s gone into addressing the hospital's capacity challenges," Allen said in a statement. "However, there’s still more work to be done to combat the criminalization of people who are homeless and mentally ill. We look forward to continuing our partnerships with counties and local courts to ensure every person in Oregon who needs mental health care has timely access.” 

DRO's legal director Emily Cooper said they'll continue to track the state's progress to ensure it remains in compliance. 

"There’s a huge need for community-based treatment options," Cooper said in a statement. "The state must also address the root cause of the problems. That means County and local officials could develop policies to avoid arresting people with mental illness for low-level offenses or to divert those individuals from the justice system."

An attorney for Metropolitan Public Defender's declined to comment. 

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

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