Portland to Get Pilot Mental Health Court

From the Portland Mercury, September 11 2008

Portland is on track to get a pilot mental health court by the end of June, with the aim of reducing repeat offenses by those whose illegal behavior is primarily the result of mental illness.

The project is good news for those like Public Defender Rachel Bredfeldt, who watched one of her clients have a nervous breakdown at the Multnomah County Courthouse on SW 4th two weeks ago. Bredfeldt’s client, who was already suffering from mental illness before her April 16 court date for a low-level misdemeanor, broke down crying before falling down on the courtroom floor to pray. She eventually had to be escorted out of court by the judge—after she refused to let anyone else help her—to an ambulance waiting outside.

“Court is such a stressful setting for everyone,” says Bredfeldt. “This was just one of those examples of criminal prosecution making a defendant’s mental illness even worse.”

The mentally ill woman, whose episode brought the busy court docket to a standstill for over an hour, had her case set for prosecution another day. Bredfeldt, who estimates she has to defend two clients a week who are suffering from severe enough mental illness that going to court is “not the best way to deal with their issues,” does not hold high hopes for her client’s next appearance in court.

“There’s a whole population of people with mental health problems who recycle through the system,” says District Attorney Mike Schrunk, who along with public defenders like Bredfeldt, and representatives from the state and Multnomah County, has been working hard to make the mental health court a reality.

“The idea is for a court to cope with the mental health aspect of the problem, so that the public is better off, the police are better off, and the person is better off,” Schrunk says.

The details: Chief Criminal Court Judge Julie Frantz has secured jail diversion funding from the state’s Department of Human Services. The money will pay for three qualified mental health professionals to work with a dedicated judge. The team’s goal is to hook mentally ill people up with medication and counseling instead of prosecuting them for low-level crimes.

The pilot project will initially have a capacity of 75 people, who will be drawn from those already on probation. To qualify, participants will need to have a history of treatment for an “axis one” mental illness like schizophrenia, paranoia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. When such a person is arrested for a new crime, they will be screened within 20 hours of arrest before arraignment, where they’ll escape charges for that crime if they agree, after consulting with a lawyer, to go into mental health court.

“Why this court can be so successful is through developing a strong bond between the judge and individuals,” says Frantz. “This is about intense supervision to ensure compliance with a plan, and about having a dialogue.”

Judge Richard Baldwin is expected to run the court. He’ll be able to set conditions for those taking part, which—on top of medication and counseling—may include things like maintaining employment, staying in school, or keeping the court informed of where the person is living. The time under mental health court supervision will last as long as the sentence for the original crime for which the person was arrested—for example, a class B misdemeanor carries a maximum sentence of six months.

Frantz and Schrunk plan to announce more details of the plan to the public soon, but in the meantime activists in the mental health community are anticipating it with optimism.

“If we actually provided effective, outcome-based treatment on demand for mental health clients in Oregon, you could probably shut down one hospital and two prisons within two years,” says Jason Renaud with the Mental Health Association of Portland. “This is a step in the right direction.”

Bredfeldt is pleased, too, even though the new court will be too late to help her client this time.

“It only hurts the community when these people cycle in and out of the system,” she says.

OUR COMMENT – Congratulations go to Judge Julie Frantz who has pushed for a mental health court in Multnomah County for over a decade. Regardless of the actual court, the process has educated all persons associated with the court process, cops, jailers, prosecutors, defenders, health care administrator, mental health clinicians, reporters, court administrators and court watchers, that untreated and under-treated mental illness and addiction are a common experience for those arrested and tried.

The question for the court now is – how many persons can this boutique court serve per month? Five? Ten? Fifteen? And will those numbers of persons accumulate on the case rolls of the new hired clinical workers, or be expected to transfer to a starved agency for equal services? In both the short and the long run – what difference will it make aside from making jail space available for another person with mental illness and addiction to occupy?