For the past seven years, Douglas County Circuit Judge Randy Garrison has worked to establish a mental health court.
Garrison has collected support from the district attorney, public defenders, law enforcement and counselors, who all agree that mental illness is the root of some crime.
But just as support has coalesced, the plan has been jeopardized by a pending reduction in the district attorney’s staff.
District Attorney Rick Wesenberg agrees the county needs a mental health court, but says his office couldn’t take on a new task if its staff is cut from 10 to nine deputy district attorneys.
“If my staff is reduced, and with the other existing services, we won’t be able to in good confidence do mental health court,” he said.
The county’s proposed budget for 2014-15 requires Wesenberg to hold the line on total spending, while giving union-negotiated pay raises to deputy district attorneys. Without an increase in the budget, Wesenberg says he will have to lay off one prosecutor to offset the pay hikes. The budget committee Monday rejected Wesenberg’s request for additional money.
Garrison said he hasn’t given up hope that he can get mental health court funded, but agrees he has a lot of work to do in the next month before the county and cities set their 2014-15 budgets.
“Getting all of our ducks in a row didn’t quite align with the county or city budget processes,” he said.
Before making a final appeal to county commissioners, Garrison said he hopes to gain support from cities. He plans to make a presentation to the Roseburg City Council on June 9 and ask for $25,000 to help support mental health court. The council is tentatively scheduled to adopt the city’s budget at that meeting.
“There is a strong need for a mental health court in Douglas County. Everybody agrees we need to do something different and better,” Garrison said.
“It’s a revolving door with people with mental illness and committing crimes,” he said. “Jails have become the first resort instead of the last resort for dealing with our mental health issues.”
Defendants charged with misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies could be eligible for mental health court. Similar to drug court, participants, with jail hanging over them, would have an incentive to complete treatment.
Organizers envision starting the court with 25 defendants and growing to 70.
Greater Oregon Behavioral Health Inc., a nonprofit mental health care provider, is willing to spend about $300,000 to help start a mental health court, including $20,000 toward retaining a 10th deputy district attorney, the provider’s data training analyst, Ari Basil-Wagner, said.
Basil-Wagner said treatment is a lot less expensive than locking up people.
She said that according to mental health care providers anywhere from 60 to 75 percent of Douglas County Jail inmates have some type of mental illness. On average each one of those individuals will be booked into the jail about 15 times per year.
“Juvenile detention centers and jails have become a surrogate for mental health facilities,” she said.
Other counties that have mental health courts are Washington, Deschutes, Clackamas, Clatsop, Coos, Lane, Malheur, Marion, Multnomah, Yamhill and Josephine.
Josephine County, which has had severe cuts to public safety budgets, has maintained a mental health court because departments involved in the criminal justice system and mental health care made the commitment, Circuit Judge Pat Wolke said.
Wolke, the court’s presiding judge, said his county has had the program for the past five years and has run it at least half that time without outside funding or adding staff.
“It’s not a big expenditure of time,” he said. “We will be working with those people anyway so we might as well devote time to mental health. The whole goal is to get mentally ill people out of the criminal justice system.”
Wolke said the program, which currently has 17 participants, used a $250,000 grant for a couple of years but that has since run out. He said the grant helped staff go above and beyond the resources they were already providing.
“I really think mental health courts are the wave of the future,” Wolke said.
Garrison said a proposed $305,000 mental health court budget includes $100,000 for a parole and probation officer. The budget also includes $30,000 for a half-time coordinator, $100,000 for a mental health specialist, $50,000 for treatment providers and $5,000 for training.
Unlike drug court, which offenders opt into, mental health court would be mandatory. Garrison said judges have an obligation to help people who come into their courtrooms.
“We have to ask, ‘Why are we letting people with mental illness make decisions on their well-being?’” he said.
Defendants with little to no criminal history would likely be ordered straight into treatment, and if they successfully complete the program, the charges against them would be dismissed. Someone with a lengthy criminal history, however, would be sentenced first and then sent to treatment, he said.
Each offender’s treatment would last one to two years, depending on the criminal charges and the person’s needs.
The Community Health Alliance, a newly formed nonprofit that will take over mental health services from the county in July, would provide services for the court.
The United Community Action Network and Adapt would also help with providing housing information and medications.
Wesenberg said he still hopes commissioners will change their minds and increase his budget by $93,000 so he can retain all 10 deputy district attorneys.
He said he previously worked in a county that was one of the first in the state to offer mental health court.
“If there is any way to swing it, I want a mental health court,” he said. “I’m still hopeful at the 11th hour that the commissioners will come through.”
• Reporter Jessica Prokop can be reached at 541-957-4209 and firstname.lastname@example.org.