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OHA wants $2.7 million to help mentally ill inmates

The request comes as state lawmakers renew their focus on diverting mentally ill Oregonians from the criminal justice system to mental health treatment and resources.

OREGON CAPITAL BUREAU - State health officials are seeking $2.7 million to add beds at the state's psychiatric hospital in Junction City to house a burgeoning number of mentally ill inmates from county jails.State health officials are seeking $2.7 million to add beds at the state's psychiatric hospital in Junction City to house a burgeoning number of mentally ill inmates from county jails.

The money, sought from the legislative Emergency Board, would pay for 25 beds and staff for six months.

The request comes as state lawmakers renew their focus on diverting mentally ill Oregonians from the criminal justice system to mental health treatment and resources.

Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, said most police officers are not trained or lack access to mental health resources to help the mentally ill. As a result, the ill often end up in jails, prisons or hospital emergency rooms.

The number of defendants sent to hospitals because they have been judged unable to aid in their own defense has doubled in the past six years, Allen said. Such clients generally remain under state care until they are deemed fit to stand trial.

The state hospital has 210 beds but 256 aid-and-assist patients, according to the Health Authority's Oct. 29 budget request to the Legislature.

To meet the demand, state hospital officials have used about 20 beds meant for civilly committed patients. The new Junction City unit would allow the hospital to restore capacity for civilly committed patients, according to an email from Robb Cowie, a spokesman for the Health Authority.

The Junction City hospital opened more than three years ago with about 100 beds to house patients from central and southern Oregon counties.

"Since opening, the need has been so high that the campus has been serving all Oregon counties," Cowie wrote.

When there's a shortage of beds, patients are diverted to acute care psychiatric wings of local hospitals, he said.

State lawmakers on Wednesday convened the first meeting of a steering committee that will propose policies to keep mentally ill Oregonians out of the criminal justice system. The effort is financed by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Researchers at the nonprofit Council of State Governments Justice Center are helping the committee identify the number of Oregonians who are arrested most often. Those individuals tend to have mental health or substance abuse challenges, said Steve Allen, a policy advisor at the council.

"The best way to support people with behavioral health needs is to connect them with treatment in their local communities" rather than sending them to jail, said Allen.

Paris Achen: pachen@portlandtribune.com or 503-363-0888. Achen is a reporter for the Portland Tribune working for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group and Salem Reporter.