New county jail could ease Seaside mental offender concerns

From the Seaside Signal, November 29, 2011

NOTE: Supporters of the Mental Health Association of Portland believe the law is the most expensive and least effective intervention for mental illness, and financial diversions from mental health treatment to police, courts, jails and prisons is a form of government corruption.

Seaside Police Chief Bob Gross is hopeful an expansion plan for the Clatsop County Jail in Astoria now under review will ease the increasing safety problem of dealing with offenders that have mental health issues.

Clatsop County Jail at 636 Duane St. in Astoria

Clatsop County Jail at 636 Duane St. in Astoria

Finding adequate bed space for people with mental health issues at holding facilities is a continuing problem countywide, according to Gross and other Clatsop County officials.

“These people require further evaluation and treatment than what we can provide locally,” Gross told The Signal in July following the arrest of a woman charged with kidnapping. The woman was later ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation.

“There often is no place to put mental health patients in the county system,” Gross said.

Nancy Winters, the executive director of Clatsop County Behavioral Health Care also expressed her concerns about offenders following the Signal’s July story about the kidnapping suspect.

“Someone who has significant mental health issues, has committed major crimes and is a significant danger to themselves and others, is very difficult to place in a psychiatric hospital because the hospitals are reluctant to take the patient,” Winters said. “The only realistic option is placing the patient at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem and that facility has a long waiting list.”

According to Winters, very often someone who has a mental health crisis and has committed a major crime has to wait in jail for a state hospital bed.

Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin is hopeful the jail expansion will give Seaside Police and other community law enforcement a new option to ease the mental health patient offender crisis.

“There are offenders with mental issues that do commit serious crimes,” he said. “What this expansion would do is provide a few holding beds for those offenders until we could get them the help that they would need. That is what we are currently lacking.”

Bergin also believes the expansion will boost inmate bed space from 60 to 160 beds for regular offenders. The current jail was build to offer 29 beds. The expansion would also save the county money by retaining inmates instead of sending them to rented jail space at the Tillamook County Jail. Bergin said the plan is the most fiscally responsible action the county can take to slow recidivism.

This week, the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners was expected to hire an architecture firm that would design the new jail. A dollar amount for the expansion could be made public in January of February.

Voters could see a funding request in May or next fall.

Without the critical voter support for the new jail, Bergin worries that crime will not slow in Seaside or throughout the rest of the county.

“The worst case scenario is that these repeated offenders will continue to be released early from the county jail and continue to commit crimes and raise havoc in our county.”