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Like other specialty court programs, defendants can get convictions dropped if they pursue treatment.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton was one of several DA's around the state who pushed for legislation to allow this kind of specialty court program.Washington County is trying out a new program that it hopes will stop the cycle of offenders with mental health issues from re-offending and ending up back in custody.

The Mental Health Pilot Program is geared towards funneling low-level offenders away from convictions and toward treatment. While officials say this may take up more resources in the immediate term, it should lead to positive results in the long-term.

"We believe that that burden will be worth it because it will help steer these people who are participating toward mental health treatment, which we think is a root cause for criminal behavior for these people in the program," said Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton, who is up for re-election this year. "The goal is that we won't see them again in the criminal justice system. We believe savings will come by taking the longer approach to it."

The criminal cycle

The reason that officials point to for this strategy is that offenders with mental health issues can often be completely disrupted by serving jail or prison time. While they can be impacted by a conviction on their record just like anyone — making it difficult to find employment, housing, or loans once they've served their sentence — individuals with mental health needs also suffer from losing access to their medication and insurance.

This disruption can lead to more mental health episodes, leading to more crimes, and perpetuating a cycle that they may not otherwise have fallen into if they had an alternative path in the criminal justice system to be put into rather than traditional conviction.

"One thing that happens in our system and that continues to happen that's really frustrating for all of those involved, is when someone goes into custody … one of the things that happens is that they can lose their healthcare," said Circuit Court Judge Rebecca Guptill, who will preside over cases in the new specialty court program. "And so, they lose access to even having their medications for a period of time. That destabilizes a person, it puts them back to square one."

The kinds of crimes that would fall under this category include low-level thefts — crimes with a low dollar amount — and misdemeanors like disorderly conduct or repeatedly calling 9-1-1 without good reason.

Making the program

This kind of diversion wasn't possible until recently, after the Legislature passed Senate Bill 218 in 2021. The wording of state law was rewritten to allow offenders with Class C felonies (the lowest level of felony) or misdemeanors to get a conditional discharge from custody if they are enrolled in a specialty court program like Washington County's.

Guptill says that part of the focus will be trying to divert as many offenders with mental health issues toward this program as possible. It will likely start broad and then become more focused as results come in.

It's not only designed for individuals with "traditional mental health issues," either. It will also deal with people who have developmental issues, traumatic brain injuries, and other physical ailments that tend to present themselves in similar ways as mental health problems like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

Officials say this approach will pay dividends down the road. With fewer people re-offending, it will hopefully put less of a strain on the criminal justice system overall.

"The data shows that, even if you just help a few, you're helping more than just them because it has a ripple effect throughout our community," Guptill said. PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Circuit Court Judge Rebecca Guptill will preside over cases that qualify for the new pilot program.

It's the same model that's already used for a wide range of low-level criminal cases. The most well-known examples are drug diversion programs, which allow offenders to avoid conviction for first-time and low-level drug offenses. They participate in a treatment program and, once they "graduate" or complete the program, they are rewarded with a waiving or a reduction of those charges.

Some officials say the legs have been taken out from under this drug diversion tool lately, because of the decriminalization of most narcotics. That means people who are caught for low-level drug charges — like possession of non-dealer amounts of a drug — are referred to drug treatment but don't have to fear being convicted of a crime.

It's that conviction that ends up being a big motivator for people to get help, Guptill said.

"One of the unfortunate side effects of saying we're just going to give a referral in a lot of circumstances is that ... it puts the onus on that person to want to get treatment and to want to … get to that referral," she said.

The mental health program, and other specialty courts, work differently.

"This is saying we're giving you an incentive to follow through with these services … and that incentive is that you avoid this conviction and the criminal component of that," Guptill said.

Other specialty courts

A similar kind of program has been started in the past few years in Washington County, aimed at veterans specifically.

Barton said that the veterans specialty court is designed for offenders whose crimes may stem from an injury or trauma that's a direct result of their service.

"If you've got an opioid addiction because you were injured in Iraq or Afghanistan and developed an opioid addiction, or alcoholism because of the trauma," Barton explained, "that specialty court provides resources that may be different because of the unique needs of that specific population."

Barton said that in the few years that veterans court program has been in effect, there have been roughly 30 graduates. Only one has re-offended since graduating.

"That's better than it would have been if we'd put (these individuals) into the traditional court system," Barton said.

In the same way Barton says the courts have seen success with these other specialty programs, he expects the mental health pilot program to improve recidivism, too. PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - DA Kevin Barton says that the new mental health pilot program will pay off in the long run by having fewer defendants re-offending and ending up back in the criminal justice system.

Larger problems to tackle

But officials caution that this program isn't a cure-all. It will still be limited by the same lack of funding and staffing for the resources that currently exist in Washington County.

For one, the DA's office and county court operations aren't getting any extra funding to pursue this initiative — hence it being a "pilot program."

The program will ask staff to do more with the same amount of money that's in the budget.

If it's successful, Barton and Guptill say they will ask the county for more funding and pursue state or federal grants that can help support the operations.

Then there's the larger issue: a lack of funding and available facilities for mental health treatment in general. In Washington County and beyond, there are limited resources for individuals to be directed towards.

There are nine monitored treatment facilities in Washington County, to which where people are referred by the Oregon State Hospital or through alternate incarceration programs like the Washington County mental health pilot program. All nine of them are listed as full or not accepting new referrals at this time.

"Around 2017, we started to see a drastic increase in the number of people who are being referred to these kinds of facilities," said Chance Wooley, the county's mental health program supervisor. "There aren't enough beds … especially because of how many more people we are seeing criminally committed."

And Washington County's facilities aren't just for Washington County residents. People from all over the state may be referred to these programs for treatment by state hospitals.

The county's new program will face these same realities. But the hope is that by having assigned case managers and county probation officers looking to put defendants into one of these beds, it will be easier to clear these hurdles.

"It's the same resources … the same treatment providers and the same facilities that just are in our community … that's not something that's increased in our community as a result of this," Barton said.

"So, in that sense, we'll run into the same challenges that might occur outside of this program and we'll have to navigate through those."

Re-thinking mental health

Barton says that there is ultimately a larger picture to preventing crimes, and it will likely take more investment on the front end of crime prevention if society wants to truly reduce offenses that stem from mental health problems.

Simply put, there are resources that can prevent crimes from ever being committed, and then there are resources that can prevent additional crimes that result from resulting from a single offense. This new county program is the latter.

"Unfortunately, providing that additional treatment before the crime occurs is something our society has not yet been able to figure out how to do. And that's beyond my control as the DA," Barton said. "What I can do is make sure that we get them better treatment now to stop that feedback loop from happening and that they don't end up back in the system."

This, ultimately, is what officials point to when they talk about the public at-large rethinking the way it views solutions to crime and the societal issues that lead to it.

"If people are looking for that quick fix, you know, 'What can I do today that will show me a result tomorrow?' There are things out there, absolutely," Barton said, "but this is not necessarily one of them. Because true criminal justice reform … is complicated. It takes time."

That's a prevailing sentiment for many who work in the criminal justice system.

"We don't do what we do to have instant gratification," said Guptill. "We do it because we believe it needs to be done to help our society. … The criminal justice system is still the front line of defense for so many societal ills."

"We're just going to have to find a way to do this, because we have to," she added.

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