An attempt to shift criminals’ mental costs to counties?

From the Klamath Falls Herald, October 18, 2011

Michael Scott Wynn has been returned to Klamath Falls from the Oregon State Hospital, where he went for mental evaluation, and his case brings up the problem of dealing properly with mental health issues.

Wynn is accused of setting fire to the county mental health building in February, along with starting two minor fires at government buildings prior to that. It will cost about $800,000, mostly covered by insurance, to repair the building.

How best to deal with Wynn will be up to the court system and he has turned down a plea bargain.

Klamath Falls Hillside Hospital

Klamath Falls Hillside Hospital

But the question in general of how to deal with people accused of criminal acts who show signs of mental illness is a costly issue for Oregonians, most of whom, we believe, want to do the right thing, but also want to protect themselves.

A Herald and News story last week reported that Klamath County ordered 18 people in 2010 to state mental health facilities either to serve sentences or for mental evaluations. That’s the sixth-highest total in the state, but we’ll leave for another time the question of why so many are coming from the county that only ranks 15th in population.

The question today is about the cost and which set of taxpayers should pay it. Treatment at the state hospital costs $570 per day and is paid by the state. That’s another way of saying the payment comes from the state as a whole, rather than only from the taxpayers in the person’s county of residence.

The state would like to move out from underneath those costs and the feeling is developing that they’re pushing the inmates back to the counties, according to Klamath County District Attorney Ed Caleb. That also would transfer more costs to the counties, along with any risk that may come with the patients.

Counties, of course, are no stranger to financial stress, as the long-running controversy over Klamath County law enforcement and the jail attest.

Every level of government is scratching for funds and taxpayers are hard-put to respond.

It would seem to us that economies of scale in big facilities should prevail to reach maximum efficiency, especially for cases of mental illness that include behavior that would be criminal under normal circumstances, but Gov. John Kitzhaber has another view.

He told residents at a town hall meeting in Junction City Sept. 28 he’s committed to a community-based mental health program and building a psychiatric care facility in Junction City is part of it. He said his approach is aimed at greater efficiency, though in a community setting.

If certain other changes are made to the mental health system, he said, the Junction City facility could eventually become a prison specializing in mentally ill patients and the state might have to establish a board that could decide the locations for such facilities even over the protest of the communities involved.

In any case, Oregon does need facilities. State psychiatric hospitals in Pendleton and Portland will be closed. The state has long been under fire for the conditions of its mental health facilities, especially the Oregon State Hospital in Salem.

The question remains, though, whether a community-based system is the best answer, or simply a way to shift costs from the state to the counties.