Changes to Oregon State Hospital policies would threaten public safety

Michael Schrunk won his first term as district attorney in 1980, running unopposed. Here, he is sworn in.

Letter to the Editor, publishing in The Oregonian, May 9, 2011

Your May 2 editorial, “Swinging doors at the state hospital,” about proposed changes to Oregon’s system for handling mentally ill persons who commit crimes ignores the grave risks to community safety the proposed legislation presents. There is a substantial threat that this legislation, as currently written, will return the state to the days where the small portion of the mentally ill who commit significant crimes are inappropriately released into the community to victimize again. With virtually unanimous agreement that community mental health resources are tragically inadequate, it makes little sense to adopt legislation that will likely result in the increased release of violent offenders into that community.

All of us were either involved in the landmark legislation that created the Psychiatric Security Review Board (PSRB) in the 1970s or have had extensive practice with this area of the justice system before and after the advent of that board. As mental health professionals and members of the judiciary, criminal defense and prosecution bar, we remember the dysfunctional system that existed before the PSRB. All too often dangerous mentally ill persons not only did not receive appropriate treatment, but were released without notice or comment and left shamefully untreated and completely unmonitored in the community. The most notorious example was Jerome Brudos, who, after a nine-month stay at the Oregon State Hospital for his first violent assault on a woman, was released into the community and murdered four others before he was brought to justice. Although this was the most egregious release mistake, it was common for persons who were found mentally not responsible for serious crime to be released with inadequate notice to crime victims and left simply unaccounted for.

One of the key problems identified at the time was that final release decisions were made by doctors whose concerns were often focused narrowly on the interests of their own institution. The PSRB was specifically designed in 1978 by a unique coalition of mental health professionals, judges, prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys to put those decisions in the hands of a board that included mental health professionals and community representatives. This board, the PSRB, was designed with the specific goal of representing broader community interests, including public safety. It has been an unqualified success, copied throughout the nation.

Indeed the PSRB was so successful that it received the Gold Achievement Award from the Hospital and Community Psychiatry Service of the American Psychiatric Association in 1994, and the endorsement of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Other states created review boards patterned after the PSRB. As your own editorial notes, new crimes committed by persons under the board’s jurisdiction have been very low.

This legislation would turn back the clock with little seeming awareness of the history that led to where we are today. Instead of recognizing the unfortunate history of forensic mental commitments before 1978 and the remarkable success of the PSRB in turning that history around, this legislation may re-create a problem that was solved more than 30 years ago. If changes are needed, we must avoid making the mistakes of the past.

Honorable John C. Beatty Jr., retired Circuit Court judge
Joseph Bloom, M.D.
Edward Colbach, M.D.
Stephen Houze, attorney at law
David Myers, Ph.D.
Jeffrey Rogers, JD, MA, LPC, former Portland city attorney
Michael D. Schrunk, Multnomah County district attorney