Articles, Blog

Decriminalize mental illness

December 21, 2019

TONYA: People look at mental
illness as a crime. You are a menace to society. And that’s not the case. They’re not a problem,
they’re a human being. They’re going through something. How can I help them? (rhythmic electronic music) SARAH: My name is Sarah Radcliffe
from Disability Rights Oregon. There are two crisis
happening simultaneously. One is lack of access
to mental health care, and the other is lack of
access to affordable housing. People with mental health
concerns or brain injuries who are living on the
streets can become trapped in a cycle of incarceration
and institutionalization. Say that I am charged with
a crime, disorderly conduct, trespass, even littering
or public urination. And because of my
disability, I may not be able to understand the charges against me, and to effectively work
with my defense attorney. That’s what we call the ability to aid and assist in my own defense. So if I’m unable to aid and assist, the court will probably
order an evaluation. (gavel thuds)
And I may wait in jail for weeks or months in order
for that evaluation to happen. Then, if I’m found
unable to aid and assist, the court would send me
to the state hospital to receive treatment in order to become able to aid and assist. And I may stay at the state
hospital for a long time. Months, even years. Then, I’m discharged, sometimes back to living on the streets because I’m not connected to the services I may need. Housing, healthcare, transportation, food, government benefits. TONYA: I’m not getting
released to any services, I’m homeless again. One more time, I get arrested,
I get released, I’m homeless. So I’m back at square one. It just continues that cycle. MELISSA: If we’re just taking them off the street for a couple days, and then causing them to lose their benefits,
lose their housing, and then really make
matters worse for everyone, we’re not really helping
anybody in that process. SARAH: And it’s created a doubling
in the past eight years of the number of patients who are at our state psychiatric hospital
on aid and assist orders. MELISSA: There is a great problem here. Where people are serving
more time in custody, just because of their mental illness. TONYA: Instead of understanding
that this person is struggling with their mental illness,
they’re criminalized. That’s a problem. That’s a problem. DORIAN: It sucks to be out on the streets. I went from being at home, living with my mom and my
sisters, to the streets overnight. I’ve dealt with homelessness since age 20. In and out of jail 45 times. Many of the charges were trespassing. Things that mostly a homeless
person would go to jail for. The first time I was in the psych hospital was for about four months. My first psych eval was
that I was schizoaffective. I went to the state hospital three times. One time was for a year and five months. SARAH: Treatment at the state hospital costs $240,000 per person per year. More than half of Oregon’s
mental health budget is being eaten up by the
state psychiatric hospital. DORIAN: They spend all that money
to pretty much dump me back on the street with no help at all. It’s really hard. It’s really hard. It doesn’t feel that good. SARAH: We’re spending a lot
of money on this process, which we all recognize doesn’t work. MELISSA: Take the humanitarian angle out of it, and we’re just looking
at the fiscal impact, what else could our communities
be doing with this money to avoid these things
happening in the first place, and making our communities better? (gentle piano music) JESSICA: There really needs to be
an intervention early on that takes the person out of that loop of pre-trial incarceration
and hospitalization. We are fortunate in Marion County that we are building good resources to help people with mental illness. ANNE-MARIE: The Psychiatric Crisis
Center began back in 1995. Our goal is to move people
out of law enforcement and even acute care services, and really to community stabilization. JASON: Oftentimes law enforcement are afraid if they leave somebody
on the scene of a call, they’ll either get hurt
or they’ll hurt somebody. Psychiatric Crisis Center is a great place outside of jail, outside of the ED, where people can access services, ’cause it is manned 24 hours a day. We want to make sure the community’s safe and that’s a great alternative. And I think that’s why
it’s been so successful. ANNE-MARIE: We do that through the outreach team, we do that through our mobile crisis team. JASON: We have clinicians working together with law enforcement officers. We have developed case management systems. ANNE-MARIE: In 2015, we were also able to hire a half-time deputy district attorney to help us focus on the
aid and assist cases. MELISSA: I’m Melissa Allison, I
do the aid and assist cases at the Marion County
district attorney’s office. When we get a case at the DA’s office, we look for signs that this
was mental illness-driven. If so, can we just connect
them with services? And not charge a criminal case. And then I dismiss the case. JESSICA: Marion County’s numbers
at the state hospital are now consistently going down, which is different than
the statewide numbers, which are consistently going up. – The diversion has helped. Our jail bookings from our historic high in 2009 are down, which is good news. The criminal justice
system is not the answer. Treatment-based services
in the community is, and that’s where we see the success. JOSH: I’m Josh, and I’m 23 years old. If there hadn’t been a diversion program, I think I would probably still
be homeless and using drugs. CLIFF: His mother and I used to live on Wilbur, and so when the kids were real little, we’d have picnics here. I didn’t have any idea my
son would end up living here. When folks were telling me, Josh, he was living in the
park, it broke my heart. JOSH: I lived in the park for about a year. My day-to-day was kind
of, search for drugs, get high, and get in
trouble, to be honest. I was charged with two misdemeanors. DUI and possession of methamphetamine. I was hospitalized for 95 days. Diversion is helpful because
they got me out of jail. They really got me
connected with my family, and that was a huge support that I needed. CLIFF: He’s not using methamphetamine anymore. So it’s really good to have
him back at his real home. To be able to just come visit. (uplifting marimba music) DORIAN: There are people that suffer from mental problem that are homeless. Run into a lot of
problems on the streets and with jails and institutions. They need someone to help them with housing and social security benefits. Get ’em ID, get ’em medication,
get ’em a job possibly. When you don’t have those
things, you’re most likely gonna end up in jail, a
psych hospital, or prison. JASON: You can’t arrest your
way out of that issue, of behavioral health or
homelessness or addiction. It just doesn’t work. Where I’ve seen the work
is with an intervention, and treatment, and wraparound
services in the community. That’s where lives are changed. And the community’s actually safer, because the individual is treated, and they’re better for it. TONYA: When a person’s basic needs are met, they’re able to become
more self-sufficient. Our criminal justice system really should find the money to make that happen. SARAH: If you care about this issue, talk to your state and
county elected leaders, and visit

1 Comment

  • Reply judith driver August 7, 2019 at 10:13 pm

    Please donate as you are able! Thank you,
    Dr Judith

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