Oregon Tries To Break Cycle Of Jailing People With Mental Health Issues

By Victoria Kim 11/06/18

A new initiative was created to divert people with mental illness from the criminal justice system in Oregon.

inmate sitting inside of a cell

There’s been more attention given to the fact that a significant percentage of incarcerated Americans suffer from mental illness.

“The vast majority of the individuals are not violent criminals,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “Once in jail, many individuals don’t receive the treatment they need and end up getting worse, not better.”

They also tend to remain in jail longer and are at a higher risk of victimization than the non-mentally ill.

Officials in Oregon are trying to break this cycle with a new initiative: the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

A new committee of 28 officials from state law enforcement, justice and health care, government officials and more—named the Behavioral Health Justice Reinvestment Steering Committee—will submit policy recommendations for how to divert people with mental illness from the criminal justice system.

The committee is planning to submit a plan for the 2019 legislative session.

“The criminal justice system was designed to prevent, protect against and prosecute criminal offenses. It was not designed to treat mental illness or substance addiction,” said Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen, who is on the committee.

Instead of cycling this population in and out of jails, where they will receive no support, Allen says there needs to be a long-term solution. “The best way to support people with behavioral health needs is to connect them to treatment in their local communities. The Justice Reinvestment process will allow us to develop solutions that better promote individual recovery while preserving community safety.”

Senate Republican Leader Jackie Winters is also on the committee. “It’s not appropriate for the jail to be the place for the mentally ill,” she said, according to the Statesman Journal. It is for the committee to figure out: “how do we treat the individual without sending them into the criminal justice system?”

The committee has begun reviewing jails across Oregon and gauging the needs of counties. They will work in concert with state health and criminal justice officials, who will contribute data to the initiative.

“We know that when we make meaningful change in behavioral health treatment and addiction recovery, we lift a burden off of our prisons, our hospitals, and our law enforcement,” said Governor Kate Brown.

“Oregon successfully used justice reinvestment to slow prison growth and expand programs that help people succeed outside of prison. By focusing on the intersection of the behavioral health and criminal justice systems in this new model of reinvestment, we can continue to improve both health and public safety," the governor said.

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