Portland eyes 'jail alternative' for mentally ill, drug addicted
Officials say the alternative could “function as a triage center” so health care professionals could assess people in crisis and connect them to services
By Gordon R. Friedman
PORTAND, Ore. — Portland officials are in the early stages of exploring whether the city may create a “jail alternative” for people arrested for non-violent misdeeds related to mental health or addiction, newly released public records show.
“The short answer is that I believe the city could create such a space,” Andrea Barraclough, a deputy city attorney, wrote in September to Berk Nelson, a senior adviser to Wheeler.
But there are many restrictions on that kind of facility, Barraclough said. It would need state regulators’ go-ahead and likely would need to follow the same laws as correctional facilities. A person could be held against their will there for only two to five days, she wrote.
Those inmates may be entitled to bail because they are charged with crimes, which could create extra work for the district attorney’s office, Barraclough said. And there are strict laws over the reasons a person may be detained to sober up or recover from a mental health problem and when they must be brought before a judge.
“There are many complexities to creating a facility that involve criminal law, and we would likely want to discuss this idea and get buy-in from the DA’s office,” Barraclough wrote, according to emails provided to The Oregonian in response to a public records request.
The Multnomah County Detention Center is a decidedly unpleasant place for the mentally ill. For example, outside watchdog Disability Rights Oregon last year documented “woefully inadequate” health care at the jail and correctional officers’ pervasive use of solitary confinement and restraints. One jail doctor even told the disability advocates that the jail system was “torturing” mentally ill inmates.
Nelson, the senior aide to Wheeler, said Monday that the mayor’s office, in coordination with Multnomah County, asked for the legal research on a jail alternative because officials want to find mentally ill or drug addicted people a better place to go other than the county lock-up if arrested.
Nelson said he envisions an alternative that could “function as a triage center” so health care professionals could assess people in crisis and connect them to services. That could bring an added bonus of helping police officers focus on responding to service calls, he said.
Nathan Vasquez, a senior deputy district attorney who has coordinated with the mayor’s office, said prosecutors are “very interested” in finding good alternatives to jail for people in crisis. But the proposal from Wheeler’s office is “a rough idea” at this point, Vasquez said.
Multnomah County officials are “always supportive” of jail alternatives, said Neal Rotman, the county’s deputy director for mental health and addiction services. The problem, Rotman said, is paying for the service.
“The issue you get into is where do you get the $3 million to $4 million a year to operate it?” Rotman said.
The idea of a city-run jail-not-jail also gives legal observers pause.
Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a nonprofit law center that promotes civil rights, said he’s encouraged that city officials are thinking about substitutes to the county jail.
“But when we think about alternatives we need to think about true alternatives and not replicating the criminal justice system,” Singh said.
A better course, he said, would be to promote intervention-like programs that help people in the throes of a drug addiction or mental health breakdown before they end up in trouble with the police.
Sarah Radcliffe, managing attorney at Disability Rights Oregon, said pre-arrest services that give “offramps” from the criminal justice system are best for people in crisis. She cited long-term health care and supportive housing as good examples.
Rotman, the Multnomah County official, said he would welcome Portland’s input – or money – to help expand the county’s mental health programs, which he said are performing well but struggling with limited budgets and high demand.
“I would love to be talking to the city about partnering up,” Rotman said.
It’s unclear if the city proposal for a jail alternative has developed beyond the initial legal advice outlined by the email records. Nelson, the mayoral aide, forwarded the advice to city and county officials, but their response, if any, isn’t indicated in the more than 200 pages of emails released to The Oregonian.
“These are the legal barriers we are facing,” Nelson wrote to the officials when he forwarded the legal memo. “Stay tuned.”