Friday, March 7, 2003
Court Orders Swifter Review of Mentally Ill Defendants
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
An appeals court has upheld a federal judge’s demand that Oregon officials promptly send all mentally ill inmates unfit to stand trial to the Oregon State Hospital.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday agreed with Portland-based U.S. District Judge Owen Panner that the state of Oregon violated the rights of mentally ill inmates by making them wait in county jails for weeks or months before getting a transfer to the state hospital for psychiatric care.
Those defendants “are often locked in their cells for 22 to 23 hours a day, which further exacerbates their mental illness,” the appeals court wrote, adding those inmates have a high risk of suicide.
“OSH is solely responsible for the timely treatment of incapacitated criminal defendants so that they may become competent to stand trial,” the appeals court said. “We are also mindful of the undisputed harms that incapacitated criminal defendants suffer when they spend weeks or months in jail waiting for transfer to OSH.”
The Oregon Advocacy Center, a federally funded law firm, and the Metropolitan Public Defenders Service in Multnomah County sued the state on behalf of 11 mentally ill inmates, saying the state hospital was not meeting its legal obligation to treat them within a week of being found unfit to stand trial.
Panner found that inmates wait an average of 30 days and that one waited as long as 166 days. Panner said the delays were inhumane and hampered their rights to effective legal representation and their ability to defend themselves.
In its appeal, the state said forcing the Salem hospital to accept patients — regardless of whether a bed is available — risks the health and safety of patients and hospital staff. In addition, the state argued that the plan would disrupt the therapeutic environment.
In Oregon, trial courts may find criminal defendants to be incapacitated as
a result of a mental disease or defect and may determine that they cannot assist in their own defense. That finding opens a 60-day process to evaluate, treat and restore the defendant’s mental health so that he or she may then take part in the proceedings.
After a bench trial, the district court found that, during 2001 and early 2002, incapacitated criminal defendants spent on average about one month in county jails before the hospital accepted them for the requisite evaluation and treatment. In many cases, the defendants had to wait two, three or even five months.
The trial court also noted that unlike hospitals jails can’t administer medication involuntarily, and that the jails are not able to provide treatment designed to restore
a person found unfit to proceed to competency.
The court also noted that the hospital, unlike the jails, provides legal skills training to assist patients in learning about the law, pleas, and returning to court.
The case is Oregon Advocacy Center v. Mink, 02-35530.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company