The View From Here

Highs and Lows: A Little Mental Health Reform Is Not Enough

by Alyssa Bartholomew, OCDLA President

From the Aug-Sept-Oct 2019 issue of The Oregon Defense Attorney


OCDLA is 40 years young this year. With nearly 1,300 members, which includes lawyers, investigators, doctors and experts, we are growing and continue to have a huge impact with the legislature. We are respected and heard, and legislators take notice. What an incredible accomplishment by an organization that started with just 30 lawyers.

For the first time in 40 years we have an all-women executive board. What a huge testimonial for how far women have come. The funny thing is we didn’t even notice that it was an all-women board until after elections when someone came up to us and said, “Wow, all women, that is incredible. We should all be proud!” You know what, it is something to be extremely proud of.

So many good things happened this past legislative session: The highs of our juvenile justice reform bills and death penalty limitations, and the lows—the failure of HB 3145 and HJR10, which makes me worry about the future of defense attorneys. However, one thing that saddens me and has yet to be really addressed is the desperate need for mental health reform in our state and in our country.
While trying to decide what to write in my first “View from Here” column as President of OCDLA, I was conflicted on what to discuss. Fate has a funny way of presenting itself and this morning my legal assistant put a cut-out article on my chair for me to see as soon as I came in. A former client of mine that I had tried desperately to help had died due to the prison’s neglect of his mental health issues while incarcerated. I have to admit, I cried and am still crying as I write this. This makes me wonder how we can just forget how serious the mental health crisis is in America. And, when will it change?

My client had a mental health history dating back 25 years. He was on and off medication and in and out of jail for various petty things. One day while having a psychotic break, he went into a bank and asked for money. He left with thousands of dollars and within two minutes he was arrested by police. When I met him, we had him evaluated. I genuinely cared for him. He was a kind soul, a good person, but he had severe mental health issues.

I tried to get him a GEI, to no avail. I tried to get him into drug court, to no avail. We had just started a mental health court in my county and I tried to get him in, but at that time the DDA would not allow it since it was a Measure 11 charge. So, he ended up in prison. He had family support, community support, mental health professionals in the community who stood there at sentencing supporting him, yet no one in the legal system seemed to care enough to embrace him and give him the help he so desperately needed because, there was “no other option.”

No other option. Those words haunt me to this day. I knew prison would not help him. I knew it would destroy him. There has to be another option, but what?

More and more people are being arrested and put in prison with mental health issues. Prisons are being used as a means of taking them off the streets, but nothing is being done to address the root of the problem. There are no mental health programs in prison. There are no behavioral support classes, no cognitive realignment classes. Nothing. We have help for those addicted to drugs, those with sex addictions, those with anger issues, but hardly anything in the legal system besides prison and the state hospital for those with mental health issues.

And what about the state hospital? It costs, on average, $1,100 a day to house a person there. The average stay is only three months and then they are sent back to the jail to determine the next course of action. The state hospital does not have enough staff, not enough room, not enough doctors to house all those with mental illness.

As some of you are aware, Senate Bill 24 is a new law passed by the legislature that revises the aid & assist statutes. The bill has an emergency clause and was signed by the Governor on July 15, 2019, which means the bill is now current law to help address the need for mental health treatment within the community (see detailed Aid & Assist Law information in the 2019 legislative session section of the Library of Defense here). This is a good start, and I hope that this continues to embolden communication that our mental health system is broken and needs to be fixed. The Legislature’s intent is to reduce the number of defendants committed to OSH and to increase community treatment and supervision of defendants. They say that we need more community restoration resources, and I fully agree. Prison is not the answer; the state hospital is not the solution; however, there are not enough mental health resources in the communities to fulfill this dire need
If we don’t fix the root problem, how can we fix those in need?

On a daily basis articles in the paper and on the news spout the need for mental health reform. Yes, some things are being put into place, but not fast enough. There is no funding. How can we as a people not realize the need for reform and put that first? If this were addressed sooner, people wouldn’t be arrested, wouldn’t be committed and wouldn’t be forgotten by a broken system. This not only a problem for adults with mental health conditions, but for children. Our juvenile system is just as riddled with these issues.

Any time a client dies I always cry. The system failed them. The system failed my client and it’s time that we as a society start focusing on the root problems and not just throw them into the criminal system. What can we do? I don’t know, but I know something needs to happen soon.