Oregon’s mental health system is flawed. Here’s what’s being done about it

A Justice Department task force is nearing completion of a two-year study of changes to Oregon’s civil commitment laws. Lawmakers are finding funding. what comes next

PORTLAND, Oregon. In the latest “Uncommitted” reporting series, KGW exposed how Oregon has effectively criminalized serious mental illness by expecting someone to commit a crime before mandating mental health treatment.

The problem is well known, and much maligned, among Oregonians who have experienced the dangers of the current system, including Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton.

“I think Oregon’s civil commitment process is broken, and it’s widely recognized that the bar that has to be reached to civilly commit someone is not adequate, it’s too high,” Barton said. “If we can address mental health issues upstream before a crime is committed, there’s a benefit for everyone involved.”

RELATED: A Portland couple tried everything to get their son mental health treatment. Then, he killed his mother

So, if Oregon’s leaders recognize the problem, what are they doing about it?

The biggest change could come from an Oregon Department of Justice task force tasked with reevaluating Oregon’s standards for involuntary care.

In late 2022, the OJD launched the “Commitment to Change” task force, a two-year in-depth study of Oregon’s civil commitment process, with the goal of recommending changes to lawmakers for the session of 2025.

The panelists have met monthly to solicit public comment and discuss legal and ethical challenges facing Oregon lawmakers.

Nan Waller, a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge who presides over Oregon’s largest mental health court, is on the panel and previously told KGW that their goal was to find consensus.

“We’re seeing so many people who are struggling,” Waller said. “It felt like the right time for the judiciary to step up and say, ‘We’re going to try to convene a group that hopefully can come to some agreements on better ways to do this.'”

RELATED: Almost all Oregon State Hospital beds go to criminal patients, all but civil commitment in Oregon

The group of judges, advocates and policymakers plans to suggest changes to Oregon’s mental health standards by issuing a report of recommendations in June. Lawmakers would then have to review the report and approve any changes in the 2025 legislative session.

In the 2024 short session, Oregon lawmakers appropriated $85 million to expand mental health and addiction facilities across the state, creating new treatment facilities and increasing bed space.

However, the funding did not account for increased behavioral health staffing needs and falls short of the Oregon Health Authority’s projections of needed statewide expansions.

A study commissioned by the Oregon Health Authority found the state needs to add nearly 3,000 residential mental health and drug treatment beds over the next few years, which would cost about $500 million, without having taking into account staff increases and incentives.

In other efforts, OHA, Oregon State Hospital, and the Oregon Department of Disability Services are working to improve skill restoration and community support for people discharged from the state hospital .

RELATED: In the midst of a psychotic episode, a man from Oregon flew to New York. There he received help that could not reach here

After identifying a “lack of data transparency” when tracking how people are doing in the health and justice systems, OHA says it is improving “timely reporting” on community restoration data and incorporating OJD data into the Behavioral Health Data Warehouse for better individualized care.

Some larger counties in Oregon are also using a “fast-track fitness to proceed” program to provide faster mental health evaluations to defendants in jail, reducing a 3-month process to a 2-week process. KGW will publish an article about this process on Thursday, April 24.

The KGW Solutions Project is our commitment to reporting on ideas and strategies that address important issues in our community. We want to hear from you about solutions. Contact us at solutions@kgw.com

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