(CN) – Disability rights advocates argued in federal court Tuesday that the state of Oregon should be held in contempt for not meeting the needs of criminal defendants who require mental health treatment.
U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman took the case under submission after 2 1/2 hours of testimony.
The litigation stems from a 2002 federal court order which found jailing a mentally incompetent person for more than seven days is unconstitutional.
Despite this, around 40 people charged with crimes who need mental health treatment languish in jail throughout the state. Disability rights activists say the inmates can suffer permanent damage when their mental illness go untreated.
Last month, Disability Rights Oregon and Metropolitan Defender Services moved for sanctions against the state, saying officials haven’t done enough to comply with the 2002 order.
Defendant Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, acknowledged problems with intake and capacity at the Oregon State Hospital. Nonetheless, he defended the agency’s overall compliance over the past 16 years.
On the witness stand Tuesday morning, Allen said the demand for beds at the state hospital greatly increased last year, and that the agency has tried to respond appropriately.
Using the analogy of a faucet and drain, Allen said they were facing a “plumbing problem,” wherein the demand for beds exceeds what is currently available.
However, he said the agency would be able to come up with a solution within 90 days.
Last Friday, Allen wrote a memo to Governor Kate Brown about a “capacity crisis” at the hospital that “coincides with a statewide housing crisis and increased arrests of people who are homeless and mentally ill.”
Brown addressed the issue the same day, asking the Legislature to increase funding for housing and mental health treatment.
Attorney Emily Cooper with Disability Rights Oregon argued the court has the authority to order the agency to comply. She noted that in the past, fines have been ineffective.
The detainees at issue are referred to as the “aid and assist” population. Judge Mosman asked Cooper if the spike in that population was predictable.
“Should we have seen this coming?” the judge asked. He noted that when there is a spike in population “you’ll have people waiting, by definition.”
Cooper said “the system should be built to respond to both peaks and valleys.”
While Mosman did not give much of an indication how he would rule, he acknowledged this is a “system-wide” problem. He questioned why the court should “put pressure on just one entity” and if contempt is “the right tool.”
Earlier this month, legislators voted to amend a law in an attempt to make it harder for judges to send defendants to the state hospital, encouraging instead community-based health care programs.