SALEM, Ore. — In just two weeks, Oregon State Hospital will begin the first of its monthly early releases of mental health patients.
The patients being released were charged with a crime but deemed unfit to stand trial due to mental illness. They were sent to the state hospital to get medication and counseling to help them become capable to aid and assist in their own criminal defense.
A new group of patients will be released from the Oregon State Hospital in Salem every month through the end of 2023 to ease the amount of time people are waiting to get in. Right now, the state hospital is so full that patients are spending months in jail waiting for vacancy to get in.
The first group consists of 23 "aid-and-assist" patients who will be released on Oct. 12. Of them, 17 are facing misdemeanor charges and six are charged with felonies.
Each patient is supposed to be released back to the counties where they were charged, but some are questioning whether that will actually happen, including Marion County Commission chair Danielle Bethell.
She gave an example of a patient who'd been facing criminal charges in Lane County, where Eugene is located, but was released directly to Marion County, home of Oregon State Hospital's main campus in Salem.
"He had refused all services from our health department and was going to walk out the front door and go to one of our most high-capacity day-use centers, not even a shelter. And he had refused all forms of medical treatment or mental health treatment. And my foundational concern around this is this individual has been in the state hospital for however long, even if it's weeks or months. They have been treated, they're likely on medication and when they walk out the front door of the hospital, it is likely upon refusal of service they will not be on medication any longer. And what risk does that pose to the community and also themselves?" said Bethell.
The patient was not part of the early release plan, but he was an aid-and-assist patient. The case against him was dismissed in Lane County, which meant the state hospital no longer had legal authority to hold him.
According to emails from Bethell, the Lane County Sheriff's Office would not pick up the patient upon his release, and his mother also said she was not able to. The state hospital does not take patients home, which meant the patient walked out the door to the streets of Salem.
"There's a kind of rule within the organized statute for parole and probation which governs anytime somebody is gonna be released from the penitentiary, if they've served a sentence, they're released to their home community, their home county. That home rule does not exist for the Oregon State Hospital. So potentially what could happen is, is you suggested individuals could, from other counties that are being housed currently at the state hospital, could just walk out onto the streets of Salem and become a burden of Marion County's health system," Bethell said.
This type of scenario is not supposed to happen when inmates are released, according to the Oregon Health Authority. But when lawmakers from Salem grilled OHA director Patrick Allen about the matter last week, he admitted that the state hospital can do little from stopping it.
"At the end of the day, if someone is no longer under our custody and control because of an aid-and-assist order, and they're no longer subject to a criminal charge, they have the ability to decide where they want to go. And it's difficult to work around that," said Allen.
He went on to insist that placement teams at Oregon State Hospital always have a discharge plan for patients as they are leaving.
State Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, a Republican in the Salem area, pressed him further, leading to a somewhat heated exchange at the Oregon Legislature.
She questioned the state hospital's ability to prevent patients from being released to Salem if a case is dismissed. Allen responded by saying, in part, "We don't simply walk them to the front door and let them out the front door." He said regardless of the circumstances of a patient's release, there will still be a discharge plan.
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Later, the Oregon Supreme Court's Chief Justice Martha Walters sent a letter to other presiding judges around Oregon asking judges to ensure an aid-and-assist patient is returned to their county if their case is dismissed.
Whether or not this will actually happen remains to be seen.