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Oregon Law Meant To Help Mentally Ill Has Ended Up Putting More Of Them On The Street

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

What happens when a law that is meant to help mentally ill defendants ends up putting more of them on the street? Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson reports from Portland.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Court had been in session for close to an hour before it was Miss Nilsen's (ph) turn. She walked into Courtroom Two at the Multnomah County Justice Center in downtown Portland. A corrections officer stood directly behind her as she was greeted by Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Nan Waller.

NAN WALLER: Good afternoon, Miss Nilsen. How are you?

NILSEN: I'm good. How are you?

WILSON: She was tall. She wore a white jail jumpsuit. She opened and closed her mouth. At times, she stuck out her tongue. We're not using her full name because of the sensitive nature of mental illness in the criminal justice system. According to court records, she was charged with misdemeanors after a physical dispute with her mom. This hearing was to determine whether Nilsen understood the charges against her or if she needed mental health treatment before continuing with her case.

WALLER: I will find that Miss Nilsen is unable to be unassisted this time based upon the qualifying mental disorder.

WILSON: Judge Waller ruled Nilsen's mental state prevented her case from going forward. A few months ago there's a good chance a finding like that would have sent Nilsen to the Oregon State Hospital to get her well enough to continue with her case, but that was before Oregon lawmakers passed Senate Bill 24 this summer. That law gave priority to defendants charged with serious crimes. For those like Nilsen facing misdemeanors, it's become harder to get care there.

WALLER: If it's not the criminal justice system, then we should have something developed to address the needs of people who are clearly having great difficulty.

WILSON: Judge Waller says the new law requires misdemeanor defendants to have both the qualifying mental illness and to be found dangerous in order to go to the state hospital. Michelle Guyton is a Portland-based psychologist who frequently evaluates defendants' mental health in jails. She says finding someone dangerous is entirely subjective.

MICHELLE GUYTON: We felt uncomfortable with how dangerousness was defined. It felt overbroad.

WILSON: In Nilsen's case, she was determined to have a mental illness but was not considered dangerous. And in much of Oregon, there aren't services to meet those needs, so Judge Waller released her to the streets. Waller says there should be appropriate community-based services.

WALLER: Releasing somebody who really needs inpatient level of treatment is difficult.

STACEY REDING: Senate Bill 24 does tie judges' hands.

WILSON: Stacey Reding is Nilsen's attorney. She asked Judge Waller to release Nilsen because being in jail wasn't the therapeutic care Nilsen needed. Reding says the new law has exposed how little mental health care there is.

REDING: I'm here to offer criminal defense, but they need a lot more help than what I can give them, and our state is not providing it.

WILSON: States across the country have struggled with how to treat people with mental illness who are in jails. Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen acknowledges there are gaps in the system.

PATRICK ALLEN: We've been spending $30 million a biennium on community-based kinds of services for a while now, and so these resources do exist in the community. What we're talking about is adding to them and improving their effectiveness, not trying to start stuff up from scratch.

WILSON: But for those working in the community, new services are what's needed. Lawmakers could take up changes when they meet early next year, but for now that leaves people like Nilsen with little support. The charges in her case have been dropped, and the day after she was released from jail, she was on the street outside the Justice Center in downtown Portland, carrying her belongings and talking to herself.

For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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